A senior thesis submitted to the Department of Politics in partial fulfillment of the requirements for the degree of Bachelor of Arts Princeton University Princeton, New Jersey

APRIL 8, 2008

To Mom and Dad, for supporting my pursuit of often outlandish dreams, and for making that pursuit possible.


The completion of my senior thesis has been an incredibly rewarding experience, and I wish to thank the people that helped make it possible. First and foremost, my advisor Leif Wenar. Your patient support and thoughtful guidance proved invaluable throughout the course of my research. The hours we spent in conversation elaborating key points in my argument and exploring contending positions proved as enriching as the process of writing the thesis itself—if not more so. As arduous as the experience at times seemed, I relished the chance to debate these issues that I care so deeply about with you, and know that our discussions greatly enhanced the quality of my final product. Now about those babies… I would also like to thank Professor Stephen Macedo, who helped immensely at the outset of my research and ultimately connected me with Prof. Wenar. Similarly, my thanks go to Jennifer Rubenstein for first exposing me to Sen’s Capability Approach in her seminar on “Theories of Justice,” and for meeting with me on several occasions to discuss the theoretical foundations of my thesis. Finally, I wish to thank my parents for affording me the incredible opportunity to attend Princeton, and my friends for making my four years here so rewarding. The process of completing my thesis went smoothly in large part because of your constant support, and for that I am forever grateful.









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“The ends and means of development require examination and scrutiny for a fuller understanding of the development process; it is simply not adequate to take as our basic objective just the maximization of income or wealth…economic growth cannot sensibly be treated as an end in itself. Development has to be more concerned with enhancing the lives we lead and the freedoms we enjoy. Expanding the freedoms that we have reason to value not only makes our lives richer and more unfettered, but also allows us to be fuller social persons, exercising our own volitions and interacting with—and influencing—the world in which we live.” – Amartya Sen, Development as Freedom 1

What is the proper basis of development? What objectives should guide the process,
and what methods should be utilized to reach these objectives? When evaluating individual well-being in developing countries, which values should be considered—those of development experts, national leaders, or the poor themselves? Does the expansion of individual access to life’s basic needs satisfy the demands of development, or are these resources actually just the means to other, more complex ends? If the development process is indeed more complex—geared toward empowering individuals to lead lives worth living by expanding the real freedoms they enjoy—what is the most viable method for facilitating these ends? Finally, when assessing the efficacy of competing development paradigms, do the ultimate ends achieved justify the means employed, or must the paradigm adhere in practice to the values and principles it espouses in theory? These are just some of the many questions explored in the course of this thesis. Rather than addressing these questions in the abstract, we situate our discussion within an evaluation of two prevailing development approaches: the Resourcist Approach (RA) and the Capabilities Approach (CA). Whereas RA evaluates levels of development primarily in terms of the basket of economic, social, and political primary goods available to individuals, CA evaluates development in terms of the economic, social, and political freedoms that individuals enjoy. In assessing the relative theoretical and practical merits of these two approaches, we


Sen, Amartya (1999). Development as Freedom. New York: Oxford University Press, 14-5.

Introduction 1

aim to shed light on the questions articulated above and, in turn, to determine which approach provides a more viable basis for development. Though we treat each approach with equal attention at the outset of our assessment, the primary focus of the thesis as a whole is the notion at the core of CA: human freedom as the principle means and ultimate end of development. There are two reasons for this focus. First, human freedom is more compelling than income or resources as a basis for development. Second, and more important, the commitment to freedoms as the primary ends and means of development is much more difficult to satisfy at the project-level than a commitment to resources or primary goods, and thus CA faces more challenges in the move from theory to practice if it is to remain a viable development paradigm. Our assessment proceeds in four stages. In Chapter One, we lay the core theoretical foundations of RA and CA, drawing on the work of two theorists widely regarded as the fathers of these approaches: John Rawls and Amartya Sen, respectively. Then, we explore the major points of tension between the two approaches to assess their relative viability as development paradigms. Critical here is our assessment of the resource- and capability-based metrics and the measurements of well-being that they generate, as these metrics serve as the critical point of departure between the two approaches. Within that, we assess the relative sensitivity of these two metrics to a range of internal and external well-being determinants that impact individuals’ capacities to convert the relevant means—resources or capabilities— into valuable achievements. As this assessment reveals, the theoretical richness of CA makes it a superior model for perceiving the depth of individual freedom and agency, and thus a superior basis for development. In Chapter Two, we focus our assessment on the complex commitment to freedom, agency, and participation at the core of Sen’s CA. In exploring what Sen refers to as the Introduction 2

agency aspect of his approach, we see just how extensive Sen’s commitment to freedom as both the end and means of development truly is. Of particular interest here is the relationship between the direct, instrumental, and constructive roles of freedom in development. We explore this relationship using the example of political freedoms, which Sen regards as preeminent in development to other dimensions of freedom, such as economic facilities and social opportunities. After determining the nature of this relationship, we explore the practical imperatives that Sen’s robust commitment to freedom imposes upon CA-based development projects. Here we see that constructive freedom is particularly difficult to realize, and that Sen’s commitment to such freedom poses serious barriers to the successful operationalization of the approach. Given this, our main conclusion in Chapter Two is that the theoretical richness of Sen’s CA generates a theorypractice disconnect that seriously compromises the viability of the approach, making it at once the most admirable and most problematic attribute of the paradigm. In Chapter Three, we shift our assessment from the theoretical to the practical, and examine the most prominent practical example of CA to-date: the United Nations Development Program’s Human Development (HD) paradigm. We consider the paradigm in theory and practice, focusing on its two main components—the Human Development Reports (HDRs) and Human Development Index (HDI)—to see whether the theorypractice disconnect in Sen’s CA is avoidable. After establishing the link between HD and CA and the correspondingly robust commitments to freedom and agency that form the basis of the HD paradigm, we examine the particular role of empowerment and participation in the evaluative and agency aspects of the HDR and HDI. As our assessment makes clear, the central failing of HD in practice is the top-down, elite-driven selection of HDI indicators and HDR themes that drive the approach, as this paternalistic process flies in the face of the Introduction 3

paradigm’s grand commitment to individual freedom in all aspects of development. Seeing the failings of CA in practice, we realize a need to reconsider the value of Sen’s complex commitment to freedom, and to consider alternative paradigms as potentially more viable foundations for development. In Chapter Four, we consider another development model that represents a rather different operationalization of Sen’s CA: the Millennium Village Project (MVP). As with our assessment of HD, we assess MVP in theory and practice to determine its overall strength. In exploring the main objectives and methods of MVP, we see that the approach is in spirit most closely aligned with Rawlsian RA, but that in practice it includes a heavy commitment to freedom and participation as means to ensure the effectiveness and sustainability of its core interventions. While this commitment to freedom is entirely instrumental, MVP in many ways facilitates the depth of agency and capability-expansion that HD strives for but fails to achieve. More important, because its theoretical foundations are primarily resourcist, it generates no problematic theory-practice disconnect with its paternalistic determination of key investment areas at the foundational level. Seeing this, we are inclined to conclude that MVP is in fact a more viable development paradigm. And yet, the purely instrumental nature of MVP’s commitment to freedom gives cause for hesitation, as the fallout when the model goes awry is potentially more damaging to human freedom than under incomplete efforts to operationalize Sen’s CA. As such, we arrive at somewhat of an impasse, only to be resolved by considering the major conclusions from each chapter simultaneously. In our evaluative Conclusion, we step back and consider the major threads of our assessment in the context of Sen’s pragmatic willingness to compromise on his theoretical commitments in the interest of operationalizing his CA. Our main objectives here are to determine the ultimate value of CA and, in turn, the proper role of freedom in development. Introduction 4

Bringing together our theoretical and practical assessments, we arrive at two major conclusions. First, we see that the most immediate value of Sen’s CA is its evaluative aspect, and the capacity of this aspect to inform alternative models and thus shift the focus of development discourse in profound ways. Second, and more important, we see that the theory-practice disconnect in Sen’s CA can in fact be avoided. In reconsidering the major failings of HD and MVP and exploring a potential compromise in Sen’s complex commitment to freedom, we ultimately propose a modified version of his CA that stands to avoid its major operational pitfalls while remaining foundationally committed to freedom as the essence of development.

Introduction 5


“If we are interested in the freedom of choice, then we have to look at the choices that the person does in fact have, and we must not assume that the same results would be obtained by looking at the resources that he or she commands. The moves towards resource-based interpersonal comparisons in contemporary political philosophy…can certainly be seen as taking us in the direction of paying attention to freedom, but the moves are substantially inadequate. In general, comparisons of resources and primary goods cannot serve as the basis for comparing freedoms. Valuing freedom imposes exacting claims on our attention—claims that cannot be met by looking at something else.” – Amartya Sen, Inequality Reexamined 2 “Capabilities are options to achieve valuable functionings. This emphasis, however, is one that resourcists can fully share. They tend to focus not on the goods persons actually have or consume, but on the goods persons can have or consume…The key question dividing the relevant approaches is then not: Should alternative feasible institutional schemes be assessed in terms of what their participants have or in terms of what their participants have access to? Rather, the key question is: Should alternative feasible institutional schemes be assessed in terms of their participants’ access to valuable resources or in terms of their participants’ capabilities, that is, access to valuable functionings?” – Thomas Pogge, “Can the Capability Approach be Justified?”3

A critical component of any development paradigm is the metric on which its
assessments of individual well-being and corresponding policy prescriptions rest. Not only does this metric drive the ultimate objectives of a development approach, it also influences the prioritization of challenges and allocation of investments that comprise the approach at the project-level. In both academic and practical circles, the main point of departure between prevailing development approaches is whether this metric should focus on individual resources or capabilities. Whereas the Resourcist Approach (RA) evaluates levels of development in terms of the primary goods available to individuals, the Capability Approach (CA) evaluates development in terms of the real freedoms individuals enjoy. In this way, CA strives to reach beyond traditional resourcist assessments of development by promoting more informative evaluative tools that capture not simply the resources needed to lead a worthwhile life, but also the freedoms needed to convert these resources into valuable achievements.

Sen, Amartya (1992). Inequality Reexamined. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 38-9. Pogge, Thomas (2002). “Can the Capability Approach be Justified?” in Martha Nussbaum and Chad Flanders eds.: Global Inequalities, special issue 30:2 (Fall 2002, appeared February 2004) of Philosophical Topics, 167-228. Available at: p. 16.
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Although RA currently dominates development discourse at the project-level, this is more a reflection of its relative practical simplicity than some deeper superiority to CA, which is in many ways a theoretically richer approach. To see this, our evaluation of the approaches proceeds in two parts. First, we explore the theoretical foundations of each independently, focusing on ends and means that they hold as central to development and the well-being metrics they employ. Second, we explore the major points of tension between the two approaches, assessing the relative strength of their theoretical foundations and the quality of the measurements that their respective well-being metrics generate. The first step in evaluating the relative efficacy of RA and CA is to define the concepts that comprise these two approaches at the most basic level. In keeping these definitions simple, we illuminate the differences at the core of the two approaches and position ourselves to delve into the more complex theoretical concerns that arise as our assessment moves forward. On the most basic conception, resources consist of the basket of primary social goods an individual has at his disposal (e.g. food, medical services, educational facilities, voting rights). In contrast, capabilities consist of the freedoms to achieve various ‘beings and doings’—also referred to as functionings—that an individual genuinely enjoys (e.g. the freedom to be well nourished, the freedom to be healthy, the freedom to be knowledgeable, the freedom to partake in the decision-making process of the community). We can thus understand resources as prior to freedoms; they represent the tools with which an individual may realize various capabilities,4 but do not represent his freedom to achieve in themselves.5 This is a major difference between resource- and capability-based metrics, and

While it may seem like certain capabilities don’t require resources as tools for their achievement, this is always the case in one way or another. Consider the capability to partake in the decision-making process of one’s community; while this doesn’t necessarily require any material goods as ‘tools’, it does require the right to vote (for official decision-making) and the right to free speech, both of which are conceived under RA as resources. 5 Proponents of RA would likely quarrel with this point, asserting that a richly conceived RA can adequately encompass all the components comprising freedom and thus capture the same opportunities enjoyed by individuals that CA does. However, because this is a component of Pogge’s position, analyzed below, we leave the complication aside for the time being.

Capabilities vs. Resources 7

will figure critically in our assessment. Keeping with the definition of resources, the Resourcist Approach (RA) determines the basic goods to which all individuals should have access and then makes these goods available by way of various capital investments. In contrast, the Capability Approach (CA) focuses on determining the critical freedoms that all individuals should enjoy and then facilitates these freedoms by way of interventions that not only provide individuals with the tools needed to achieve them, but also empower individuals to do so. Before turning to the theoretical foundations of RA and CA, it is worth elaborating the difference between capabilities and functionings. As Amartya Sen explains, “[a]chievement is concerned with what we manage to accomplish, and freedom with the real opportunity that we have to accomplish what we value.”6 Given this distinction, functionings constitute an individual’s level of achievement and capabilities his freedom to achieve. An individual’s life thus entails “a set of interrelated ‘functionings’,” the realization of which depends on her capabilities, which reflect her “freedom to lead one type of life or another.”7 Along this conception, a Ugandan field-worker’s functioning is comprised of her actually performing her work—and of all the residual achievements, such as income, nourishment, and improved health, which result from this. Her capability, in turn, is comprised of her innate skills, the internal development of that ability, and the external social and institutional factors that enable her to freely participate in the market.8 In this way, capabilities reflect the real freedoms individuals enjoy, and are thus the primary ends and means of development under CA.

Sen (1992). Inequality Reexamined. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 31. Sen (1992), 39-40. 8 This tripartite composition of capabilities draws on Martha Nussbaum’s CA framework. In her approach, N. identifies three levels of capabilities: basic, internal, and combined, understood respectively as: “the innate equipment of individuals that is the necessary basis for developing the more advanced capabilities”; “developed States of the person herself that are . . . sufficient conditions for the exercise of the requisite functions”; and “internal capabilities combined with suitable external conditions for the exercise of the function.” See Nussbaum, Martha (2000). “In Defense of Universal Values,” in Women and Human Development. Cambridge: Cambridge U. Press, 84-85.
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Throughout our assessment of RA and CA, we use the most elaborate and widely accepted versions of the two approaches—advanced by John Rawls and Amartya Sen, respectively—as our theoretical basis. After elaborating these conceptions and drawing out their core principles, we move to the more substantive evaluation of the approaches as viable development paradigms. RAWLS’ RESOURCIST APPROACH The foundational concept of the RA advanced by Rawls in A Theory of Justice is justice as fairness—“a theory of justice that generalizes and carries to a higher level of abstraction the traditional conception of the social contract.”9 Under this theory, the main subject of justice is a society’s institutional framework, consisting of its political, economic, and social arrangements. The degree to which a society is just or unjust depends on “the way in which the major social institutions distribute fundamental rights and duties and determine the division of advantages from social cooperation.”10 Rawls proposes two principles of justice to govern these distributions and divisions: First: each person is to have an equal right to the most extensive basic liberty compatible with a similar liberty for others. Second: social and economic inequalities are to be arranged so that they are both (a) reasonably expected to be to everyone’s advantage, and (b) attached to positions and offices open to all.11 As Rawls explains, these two principles are meant to be lexically ordered, with the first principle remaining prior to the second at all times and, within the second principle, part (b)—fair equality of opportunity remaining prior to part (a)—the Difference Principle. “This ordering means that a departure from the institutions of equal liberty required by the first

Rawls, John (1971). A Theory of Justice. Cambridge: Belknap, 3. Rawls (1971), 7. 11 Rawls (1971), 60.
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principle cannot be justified by, or compensated for, by greater social and economic advantages. The distribution of wealth and income, and the hierarchies of authority, must be consistent with both the liberties of equal citizenship and equality of opportunity.”12 The distributional inequalities that inevitably arise under Rawls’ conception of social justice are only defensible if they maintain fair equality of opportunity and satisfy the Difference Principle. In this case, “[a]ll social values—liberty and opportunity, income and wealth, and the bases of self respect—are to be distributed equally unless an unequal distribution of any, or all, of these values is to everyone’s advantage”—first and foremost to the advantage of the worst off.13 If the distribution of rights and liberties and the division of advantages from social cooperation in a society satisfy these two principles, that society is just. If this distribution falls short of Rawls’ principles, injustice persists and corrective measures should be taken. How do resources fit into this complex conception of social justice? At its very core, Rawls’ theory of social justice “is to be regarded as providing…a standard whereby the distributive aspects of the basic structure of society are to be assessed.”14 Extending this conception beyond his two principles of justice, Rawls proposes primary social goods as the proper basis of well-being assessment. Rawls defines these primary social goods as “things that every rational man is presumed to want,” and which “normally have a use whatever a person’s rational plan for life.”15 These goods fall into three categories—“rights and liberties, opportunities and powers, income and wealth”—and form the basis of individual expectations, “the index of these goods which a representative individual can look forward to” under a

Rawls (1971), 61. Rawls (1971), 62. See also 303. 14 Rawls (1971), 9. 15 Rawls (1971), 62.
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given society’s institutional order.16 Rawls’ conception of resources is thus restricted to social or external goods, and excludes natural endowments—such as good health, intelligence, and innate ability—that might also be considered primary goods (internal resources) in other frameworks of social justice. Because Rawls’ theory exemplifies RA and because, as Thomas Pogge argues, “[t]his Rawlsian account of relevant resources is still quite broad,”17 we consider it the proper conception of resources on which to base our assessment of RA. Rawls identifies two central difficulties with using resources as the basis of individual expectations. First, RA faces the problem of selecting and weighting primary goods within the index in a just way. Provided that his two principles of justice are satisfied, however, and that individual liberty remains prior to the distribution of opportunities and income, Rawls believes that this problem is easily resolved. If a society is just along Rawls’ framework, “[T]he fundamental liberties are always equal, and there is fair equality of opportunity; one does not need to balance these liberties and rights against other values. The primary social goods that vary in their distribution are the powers and prerogatives of authority, and income and wealth.”18 While this explanation points to a reasonable method for weighting goods within the index, it leaves open the problem of what such weighting—left to ‘the powers and prerogatives of authority, and income and wealth’—means for those members of society that Rawls would classify as the worst off. The Difference Principle provides that inequalities can exist only if they actually benefit society’s worst off, and thus justice as fairness requires a heavier weighting of goods for the members of society who lack the power and capital to secure sufficient basic primary goods on their own. “The index problem largely reduces, then, to that of weighting primary goods for the least advantaged, for those with the least authority and the lowest income, since these also tend to be
Rawls (1971), 92. Pogge (2002), 16. 18 Rawls (1971), 94.
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associated.”19 And it is this weighting on behalf of society’s worst off, carried out “by taking up the standpoint of the representative individual from this group and asking which combination of primary social goods it would be rational for him to prefer,”20 that remains a problematic component of Rawls’ RA, as we see more thoroughly below. The second and more interesting problem with using resources as the basis of expectation is that “[i]t may be objected that expectations should not be defined as an index of primary goods but rather as the satisfactions to be expected when plans are executed using these goods.”21 The intuition here—that metrics for well-being assessment should focus on individual achievements (for Rawls, the fulfillment of one’s plans) rather than on the tools one has available for carrying out these achievements—is of critical importance in the broader debate over well-being assessment in development. Given the various complications that may arise in the conversion of resources into valuable achievements, an index of available primary social goods seems certain to produce an insufficient assessment of individual well-being. More important, Rawls acknowledges that it is achievements rather than means to achievement that bring men happiness, even though his resourcist index clearly measures the latter. Despite these various concerns, Rawls provides a persuasive defense of the resourcist decision to focus on goods rather than what those goods mean for individuals, and this defense is critical to our assessment of RA. Rawls’ defense against this criticism rests on his belief that it is the responsibility of the individual, not the state, to utilize the resources made available to him.
Justice as fairness…does not look behind the use which persons make of the rights and opportunities available to them in order to measure, much less to maximize, the satisfactions they achieve. Nor does it try to evaluate the relative merits of different conceptions of the good. Instead, it is assumed that the members of society are rational persons able to adjust their conceptions of the good to their
Rawls (1971), 94. Ibid. 21 Ibid. Emphasis added.
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situations…Everyone is assured an equal liberty to pursue whatever plan of life he pleases as long as it does not violate what justice demands. Men share in primary goods on the principle that some can have more if they are acquired in ways which improve the situation of those who have less…On this conception of social justice, then, expectations are defined as the index of primary goods that a representative man can reasonably look forward to. A person’s prospects are improved when he can anticipate a preferred collection of these goods.22

Rather than assessing the ‘relative merits of different conceptions of the good’ and generating an index of goods with which all members of society may fulfill their life plans, justice as fairness takes a more hands-off, universal approach. Although Rawls recognizes that the plans rational persons hold will be marked by different ends, he insists that these plans “nevertheless all require for their execution certain primary goods, natural and social.”23 While plans will indeed differ depending on a person’s abilities, circumstances, and desires, Rawls reminds us that members of his society are ‘rational persons able to adjust their conceptions of the good to their situations,’ and that regardless of the ends these members settle on, primary social goods—such as rights, wealth, and opportunity—are necessary means for all rational members in all systems of ends. Though Rawls admits that “[f]ounding expectations on primary goods is another simplifying device,”24 it is thus also the most reliable method for measuring the justness of the distributions and divisions within a society of the basic social goods that all members should reasonably desire and have access to. This is, at least, the central argument behind Rawls’ RA—and, importantly, the core shortcoming to which Sen responds in constructing his CA. SEN’S CAPABILITY APPROACH Sen laid the foundations for his CA in his 1979 Tanner Lecture entitled “Equality of What?”, where he advanced basic capability equality as a viable measure. Sen here emphasizes the great potential yet ultimate inadequacy of an index of primary social goods that satisfies
Rawls (1971), 94-5. Rawls (1971), 93. 24 Rawls (1971), 95.
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Rawls’ two principles of justice, and identifies the major failing of Rawls’ approach as its insensitivity to human diversity. “If people were basically very similar,” Sen writes, “then an index of primary goods might be quite a good way of judging advantage. But, in fact, people seem to have very different needs varying with health, longevity, climatic conditions, location, work conditions, temperament, and even body size (affecting food and clothing requirements).”25 The consequence, then, of using primary goods as a metric for judging individual advantage is “partially blind morality”26—a conception of social justice that fails to capture the importance of the relationship between persons and goods, and thus generates an incomplete assessment of individual well-being. To avoid generating an “informationally short” metric in his approach, Sen shifts the currency of equality from primary goods to “what goods do to human beings.”27 Put simply, Sen expands the target of equality to include individual needs and interests, captured in the form of basic capabilities—“a person being able to do certain basic things,”28 rather than merely having certain basic goods. This notion of basic capabilities supplements the Rawlsian notion of primary social goods by accounting for diversities in various internal and external factors that cause disparate conversions of goods into achievements for individuals within a society. “[B]ecause the conversion of goods to capabilities varies from person to person substantially, and the equality of the former may still be far from that of the latter,”29 this conceptual shift is essential to attaining a truly accurate assessment of individual advantage and well-being—which is itself essential to informing development programs so that they facilitate improvements in individual well-being rather than simply expand the range of primary social goods available to them.
Sen, Amartya (May 1979). “Equality of What?” The Tanner Lecture on Human Values. Delivered at Stanford University on May 22, 1979: 215-6. 26 Sen (1979), 216. 27 Sen (1979), 219. Emphasis added. 28 Sen (1979), 218. 29 Sen (1979), 219.

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In the nearly three decades since he introduced basic capability equality, Sen has elaborated the metric into a comprehensive approach to social justice and, more importantly, development. To draw out the core theoretical foundations of Sen’s CA, we turn to his most recent and thorough articulation of the theory, Development as Freedom. The title of this work suggests a lot about Sen’s central thesis, as presented clearly in the introduction: Development can be seen, it is argued here, as a process of expanding the real freedoms that people enjoy. Focusing on human freedoms contrasts with narrower views of development, such as identifying development with the growth of gross national product, or with the rise in personal incomes, or with industrialization, or with technological advance, or with social modernization.30 Here, Sen reiterates his position that Rawlsian resourcist views are too narrow to capture the essence of development, which is, on Sen’s account, human freedom. This narrowness stems from the RA focus on the means of development rather than its ends—what Sen refers to as the fetishist aspect of Rawlsian equality31—and distracts from the actual achievements toward which development should move. In focusing on freedom, Sen aims to remedy the partially blind view of development that RA yields. “If freedom is what development advances, then there is a major argument for concentrating on that overarching objective, rather than on some particular means, or some specially chosen list of instruments.”32 It is important to clarify what Sen means by ‘freedom’ in this passage, as the term takes on a more complex meaning in the advanced stages of CA. Here, freedom is effectively synonymous with capability—being able to achieve valuable functionings. In that sense, Sen suggests that the substantive freedoms individuals enjoy are what really matter in development—not primary goods, which play a prominent yet only component part in the process, nor achieved functionings, which provide an incomplete picture of individual freedom.
Sen, Amartya (1999). Development as Freedom. New York: Anchor Books, 3. Sen (1979), 219. Sen argues that Rawlsian equality (RA) fetishizes resources, whereas basic capability equality (CA) avoids this fetishist characteristic by looking beyond resources to individuals’ actual capabilities to achieve functionings (or execute “life plans”). 32 Sen (1999), 3.
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For Sen, the removal of unfreedom is critical to successful development and a key component of CA assessment that other approaches lack. He cites the following as potential sources of unfreedom: “poverty as well as tyranny, poor economic opportunities as well as systematic social deprivations, neglect of public facilities as well as intolerance or overactivity of repressive states.”33 In turn, a few examples of unfreedom as manifested in the lives of the poor include: famine, undernutrition, limited access to health care, unnecessary morbidity, premature mortality, lack of opportunities (such as health care, functional education, gainful employment, and economic & social security), and the absence of political & civil liberties.34 As Sen is quick to point out, freedom consists of both processes that enable individuals to act and make decisions freely and opportunities that people enjoy in their respective personal and social circumstances. If either the processes or opportunities in a given society are inadequate, in the sense that they fail to account for the diversity of that society’s members so that all individuals enjoy a range of capabilities, unfreedom persists.35 Whereas RA includes no mechanism for identifying inadequate processes and opportunities because it attends only to external social goods and not the corresponding capabilities that diverse individuals actually enjoy, CA is by definition committed to measuring both. Thus, by attending to the potential sources and embodiments of unfreedom at both the process and opportunity levels of individual capability, CA gets closer to accurately measuring the freedoms that individuals truly enjoy. While this discussion of unfreedom illuminates why capability-based well-being measurements are more compelling than those based on primary goods, we have yet to see clearly the full value of freedom in development—why, that is, Sen characterizes development itself as freedom. On this point, Sen offers two reasons why freedom is the
Sen (1999), 4. Sen (1999), 15. 35 Sen (1999), 17.
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essence of development: the evaluative reason and the effectiveness reason. The evaluative reason holds that “[v]iewing development in terms of expanding substantive freedoms directs attention to the ends that make development important, rather than merely to some of the means that, inter alia, play a prominent part in the process.”36 This is essentially the notion, drawn out in Sen’s critique of Rawlsian equality, that access to primary social goods cannot be taken as a measure of true progress, the assessment of which “has to be done primarily in terms of whether the freedoms that people have are enhanced.”37 In turn, the effectiveness reason—referred to hereafter as the agency aspect38—holds that “achievement of development is thoroughly dependent on the free agency of people.”39 Phrased differently, “[f]reedoms are not only the primary ends of development, they are also among its principal means.”40 Of the two aspects of freedom, then, the agency aspect is actually more important to CA as a whole. Though the evaluative aspect is of critical importance to CA in as far as it makes the approach a more viable tool than RA for assessing progress and identifying critical objectives for development, the agency aspect draws out the instrumental value of freedom that figures so critically in the actual achievement of these objectives that would be quite difficult to reach otherwise. The thrust of Sen’s agency aspect is the recognition and utilization of the linkages between instrumental freedoms in their various forms.41 On Sen’s view, the empirical connections between political freedoms and economic security, social opportunities and

Sen (1999), 3. Sen (1999), 4. 38 Sen proposes this terminology because it captures the essence of what the ‘effectiveness reason’ for freedom’s importance in development is actually about. As Sen explains, the term agent is taken here to mean “someone who acts and brings about change, and whose achievements can be judged in terms of her own values and objectives, whether or not we assess them in terms of some external criteria as well.” [Sen (1999), 19.] In this way, CA holds individuals to be not mere aid recipients but active aid participants—agents of change working to improve their own lives and the lives of those around them. 39 Sen (1999), 4. 40 Sen (1999), 10. 41 Sen (1999), 38-40. Sen identifies five categories of instrumental freedoms: (1) political freedoms, (2) economic facilities, (3) social opportunities, (4) transparency guarantees, and (5) protective security. These freedoms serve as the subject of Sen’s empirical analysis throughout the book, and thus the list is not meant to be exhaustive. Nevertheless, this five-part list gives a good sense of the types of instrumental freedoms as well as the potential linkages between them that factor so critically into development.
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economic participation, and economic facilities for both personal affluence and public resources for social facilities greatly reinforce the priorities generated by the evaluative aspect of a freedom-centered development approach. In this way, CA is truly agent-oriented. “With adequate social opportunities,” Sen asserts, “individuals can effectively shape their own destiny and help each other. They need not be seen primarily as passive recipients of the benefits of cunning development programs. There is indeed a strong rationale for recognizing the positive role of free and sustainable agency—and even of constructive impatience.”42 Beyond expanding the general capability of individuals to live more freely, the complementary use of freedoms as instruments transforms these freedoms into objects of direct value in subsequent stages of development. For example, the political freedom of free speech may be of exclusively instrumental value in helping individuals secure basic capabilities, such as the capabilities to be nourished and to live a healthy life, by enabling them to voice their needs in regard to these ends. However, this freedom becomes directly valuable once individuals have secured access to more basic capabilities, and is then itself made the target of other instrumental freedoms. In this way, Sen ensures that CA holds itself in practice to the commitments to freedom and agency it espouses in theory. The richness of the relationship between the evaluative and agency aspects of freedom in Sen’s CA cannot be overstated; however, because these components of the theory are the primary focus of analysis in Chapter Two, our basic discussion here will suffice for now. As noted in our discussion of Rawls, any metric of well-being measurement faces certain constrictions that must be overcome in order for the metric to be truly workable. Whereas the main difficulty with Rawls’ resourcist metric is what the measure captures, the main difficulty with Sen’s capability-based metric is the paternalistic selection process that stems from


Sen (1999), 11.

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its inescapably pluralist nature. As Sen notes, the pluralism of his metric raises three valuational concerns: “First, there are different functionings, some more important than others. Second, there is the issue of what weight to attach to substantive freedom…vis-à-vis the actual achievement…Finally…there is the underlying issue of how much weight should be placed on the capabilities, compared with any other relevant consideration.”43 The first concern is similar to that encountered with weighting in Rawls’ index of primary goods, and is no more problematic for CA than RA. In truth, the real issue is not the metric’s pluralist nature, which Sen demonstrates to be preferable to the homogeneity of metrics valuing one ‘good thing’, but rather the problems that arise during the process of structuring this metric given the robust commitment to freedom and agency in CA. The identification and prioritization of freedoms that people deserve and have reason to value in relation to other freedoms, actual achievements, and various other well-being concerns is highly complex, and may require a top-down process that itself constitutes a form of unfreedom. Because this issue may only truly be appreciated in the context of our deeper exploration of freedom, agency, and participation, we leave this question of weights, valuations, and social choice to Chapter Two as well. Based on our exploration of CA thus far, it is not surprising that the approach has impacted development discourse so deeply at the theoretical and practical levels. Offering a more comprehensive metric for assessing development and advancing the agenda of human freedom in such profound ways, Sen’s CA is far superior to alternative measures of wellbeing and corresponding development paradigms, including Rawls’ RA. As mentioned at the outset of this chapter, the major snags with CA are encountered at the practical rather than theoretical level—primarily because CA is theoretically richer than RA and thus has more


Sen (1999), 77.

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stringent standards that its project-level manifestations must fulfill. Before considering the difficulties with operationalizing Sen’s CA in Chapter Two, however, we must complete our relative assessment of CA and RA to see where the two theories truly divide—and in what ways CA proves theoretically superior to RA as a development paradigm.

Given the theoretical foundations of CA and RA, it seems clear that the critical point of departure between the two approaches is the metric for assessing quality of life of and among individuals—and, in turn, the various differences in objectives and methods that arise when extending these metrics to the field of development. Whereas CA focuses on the freedoms individuals enjoy to achieve valuable functionings, RA focuses on the basket or index of primary social goods that individuals have access to. The phrasing here—“have access to” rather than simply “have”—is very important. A less sympathetic assessment of RA would not hesitate to characterize the approach as focusing solely on the primary social goods that individuals actually possess; were this the case, there would be no question of CA’s superior capacity to measure quality of life, as mere possession of goods pales in comparison to the ‘possession’ of capabilities as indicators of the genuine choices and opportunities individuals enjoy. Because we are interested in assessing CA and RA on their most favorable construal, however, we spend no time on this less complex question and move to the more interesting issue at hand: namely, which of the two measures—access to valuable resources or access to valuable functionings—is more viable for interpersonal social comparison. To that end, the critical question is: which metric generates the richest assessment and comparison of individual progress in development? While our foregoing assessment of the two approaches seems to point quite clearly to CA as a more capable metric, there is a Capabilities vs. Resources 20

compelling line of argument that holds RA just as capable as CA in both what it emphasizes and in the ultimate results it generates. For the richest presentation of this argument, we turn to Pogge’s essay entitled “Can the Capability Approach Be Justified?”. Here, Pogge reframes the debate over the two approaches and attempts to answer the question that he identifies as key to justifying one over the other: “Should alternative feasible institutional schemes be assessed in terms of their participants’ access to valuable resources or in terms of their participants’ capabilities, that is, access to valuable functionings?”44 In framing our assessment of the two approaches around this question, we can determine which metric is best suited to making interpersonal assessments of quality of life and, in turn, levels of development in a given institutional order.45 The position at the heart of Sen’s critique of RA is that an index of primary social goods cannot adequately capture the real freedoms or opportunities that individuals enjoy to achieve valuable functionings. In emphasizing the goods individuals have access to rather than the opportunities and achievements individuals can convert these goods into, RA misses the critical essence of development. In contrast, Sen’s CA captures individual opportunity to achieve valuable functionings rather than the tools that contribute to this opportunity or the functionings themselves. As Sen explains, “[w]e use incomes and commodities as the material basis of our well-being. But what use we can respectively make of a given bundle of commodities, or more generally of a given level of income, depends crucially on a number of contingent circumstances, both personal and social.”46 The five contingent circumstances that Sen identifies are: personal heterogeneities (e.g. disability, illness, age, and gender);

Pogge (2002), 16. It is important to note that the shift here from ‘assessing the justice of institutional schemes’ to ‘the quality of life and…levels of development’ in these orders is not critical to the substance of the two approaches. Implicit in the extension of CA and RA to the realm of development is the presumption that development hinges on first assessing where the injustices in the world’s most impoverished countries lie, and then generating programs to respond to the deficits and disparities in individual shares—whether these consist of bundles of primary goods or capability sets. 46 Sen (1999), 70.
44 45

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environmental diversities (e.g. climatic changes or concentrations of infectious disease); variations in social climate (e.g. public education arrangements, crime rates, and epidemiology); differences in relational perspectives (e.g. conventions, customs, and community-wide distribution of resources); and distribution within the family (e.g. distributional patterns based on gender, age, or perceived needs)47. In accounting for these quality of life determinants, Sen’s CA captures “the freedoms generated by commodities, rather than…the commodities seen on their own,”48 and thus surpasses RA in its evaluative capacities. This is, at least, Sen’s contention. And this is the main point on which Pogge disagrees with Sen’s critique of RA and subsequent justification of CA. In response to Sen’s assertion that RA inadequately accounts for these five contingent circumstances, Pogge stakes the following claim: In explicating the meaning of “capabilities,” Sen emphasizes that he is concerned not with what persons have or are, with their achievements or functionings, but rather with what they can have or be. Capabilities are options to achieve valuable functionings. This emphasis, however, is one that resourcists can fully share. They tend to focus not on the goods persons actually have or consume, but on the goods persons can have or consume. Rawls, for instance, evaluates social positions in terms of the access they provide to or through certain all-purpose means such as basic liberties, opportunities, and money.49 If it is in fact the case that Rawls’ RA can fully share Sen’s emphasis on access rather than simple possession, RA stands to fare much better than initially expected in our relative assessment of the two approaches. As Pogge explains, the assessment of this purported gap between the approaches first requires a determination of which factors CA is sensitive to that RA in fact cannot be; then, provided that certain factors fit this criterion, we must determine whether these factors actually ought to figure into our measurement of development. Thus, we turn our assessment to Pogge’s evaluation of these two questions to
Sen (1999), 71-2. Sen (1999), 74. 49 Pogge (2002), 16.
47 48

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see whether or not his central claim about RA being able to share CA’s emphasis on access actually holds water. ACCOUNTING FOR SEN’S KEY DETERMINANTS50 – WHICH APPROACH FARES BETTER HERE? The first determinant that Pogge addresses is distribution within the family. The basic intuition here is that “well-being or freedom of individuals in a family will depend on how the family income is used in the furtherance of the interests and objectives of different members of the family.” 51 Of particular concern are distributional rules related to gender, age, or perceived needs that might lead to inadequate access to capabilities for certain members of the family. While Sen suggests that sensitivity to this determinant is a function of the metric on which a development approach rests, Pogge argues that it actually depends on the interpersonal aggregation function that a given approach employs; “[e]qualitarian, prioritarian, and sufficientarian criteria of social justice all…take account of intrafamily distribution. Contrary to what Sen suggests, capability and resourcist criteria of social justice do not differ on the issue….”52 What is the basis of this claim? Granting Sen’s point that intrafamily distributional biases are “more readily checked by looking at capability deprivation (in terms of greater mortality, morbidity, undernourishment, medical neglect, and so on) than can be found on the basis of income analysis,”53 Pogge insists that this difference is purely a matter of practical ease, and that the approaches remain equally capable of actually perceiving or characterizing the problems in intrafamily distribution. This argument seems tenuous for two reasons. First, CA not only checks intrafamily distribution biases more readily than RA, but also captures myriad potential sources of
Because we are primarily engaging Pogge here, we carry out our assessment of Sen’s five determinants in the order that Pogge responds to them and not in the order in which Sen’s articulates them. As Pogge does in his analysis, we keep the headings of Sen’s determinants the same. 51 Sen (1999), 71. 52 Pogge (2002), 19. 53 Sen (1999), 89 cited in Pogge, 19.

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intrafamily bias—such as family traditions and social mores—that RA fails to, giving it greater capacity to diagnose and remedy this problem. Second, Pogge seems to suggest that, by describing intrafamily injustices “as men and boys systematically receiving larger shares of family resources than women and girls do,” RA stands ready to adequately rectify the situation by implementing social mechanisms that ensure equal division of resources within the household. However, this reflects a naïve understanding of the problem itself—a reversion, in a way, to the resourcist focus on possession rather than access. Simply because a brother and sister in a rural Ugandan household enjoy access to the same nominal share of family income by no means signals equal access to the valuable resources that may be attained with these shares. Whereas the brother may have free reign to spend his share of the family income as he sees fit, the sister may be expected—even required—to spend her share on goods to which the entire family will have access, making her actual access to other goods much more limited. In order to truly account for this determinant, then, RA would need to be more sensitive to nuanced sources of bias than it is. The second determinant that Pogge addresses is differences in relational perspectives. Here, the point is that “commodity requirements of established patterns of behavior may vary between communities, depending on conventions and customs.” To clarify this, Sen poses the example of a person who is relatively poor in a wealthy community; holding such a relational perspective with one’s community “can prevent a person from achieving some elementary “functionings” (such as taking part in the life of the community) even though her income, in absolute terms, may be much higher than the level of income at which members of poorer communities can function with great ease and success.”54 How does RA account for such differences in relational perspectives? On Pogge’s view, RA is fully capable—


Sen (1999), 71.

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perhaps even more so than CA—of accounting for such differences, and this notion of individual advantage as relative and absolute “is at right angles to the debate between the two approaches.”55 Whereas a very basic conception of CA focused exclusively on functionings of absolute value (e.g. being well-nourished and having physical mobility) can run afoul of Sen’s point, a simple income resourcist can accept it, “by recognizing that the value of any level of income depends in part on what incomes other participants enjoy.”56 While this point is well-taken, it seems to suggest that RA is only more sensitive to differences in relational perspectives at the most basic level—that is, where relational disparities are easily tracked by the crude indicators that comprise RA assessment. Beyond income and a basket of basic resources, Pogge believes that a sophisticated resourcist can still accept Sen’s position here. Noting that the value and adequacy of a person’s rights and the education, health care, and employment to which she has access are all relative rather than absolute aspects of individual well-being, Pogge argues that Rawlsian RA expresses these aspects “in the demand for equal basic liberties and equal opportunities as well as in such intrinsically relational goods as “powers and prerogatives of offices and positions of responsibility” and especially “the social bases of self-respect.””57 On this point, Pogge’s argument is rather convincing. Recognizing that many key aspects of individual wellbeing are relative rather than absolute, RA effectively accounts for differences in relational perspectives. While we might still worry that RA perceives only crude, systematic disparities in relative aspects of well-being, Pogge shows the approach to be sufficiently sensitive to these disparities such that it loses no serious ground here. The third determinant that Pogge addresses is variations in social climate. As Sen explains, “[t]he conversion of personal incomes and resources into the quality of life is
Pogge (2002), 20. Ibid. 57 Pogge (2002), 21 citing Rawls: Collected papers, 362f., 454.
55 56

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influenced also by social conditions, including public educational arrangements, and the prevalence or absence of crime and violence…epidemiology and pollution…[and] the nature of community relationships.”58 These variations in conversion may result in one of two scenarios: when two individuals with similar personal incomes and resources live in quite different social climates or when two individuals with similar personal incomes and resources live in the same social climate, but certain social conditions make the achievement of improved quality of life more difficult for one than the other. Pogge is not particularly concerned about this determinant, as his brief response indicates. Pointing to Rawls’ own belief that the various factors comprising a given social climate may jeopardize “some of the basic liberties of citizens such as their physical and psychological integrity and their freedom of movement,”59 Pogge argues that a sophisticated resourcist adequately accounts for potentially damaging social conditions and their disparate effect on different persons or groups. In as far as it shows us one way in which RA is sensitive to variations in social climate, Pogge’s argument is compelling. But we are not simply concerned with RA demonstrating sensitivity of any kind whatsoever to these issues—we care here about the capacity of RA to account for these various determinants relative to CA. It is not the case, as Pogge suggests, that RA responds to social climate variations “in a different way than the capability approach” of equal merit; rather, in its restricted focus on broad systematic disparities in social climate and corresponding inability to respond to more nuanced variations, the response of RA here seems clearly inferior. The fourth determinant that Pogge addresses is environmental diversities. As Sen explains, “[v]ariations in environmental conditions…influence what a person gets out of a given level of income…[t]he presence of infectious diseases in a region…alters the quality of
58 59

Sen (1999), 71. Pogge (2002), 22 citing Rawls (1971), 211-213.

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life that inhabitants of that region may enjoy. So do pollution and other environmental handicaps.”60 Whereas Pogge attempts to demonstrate some sensitivity in RA to the three preceding determinants, he openly acknowledges that environmental diversities receive insufficient attention from resourcists—including Rawls, who pays no regard to such concerns in his criterion of social justice. Though Pogge attempts to explain this disregard as a function of Rawls’ assumption that “the citizens of a just society enjoy freedom of movement,”61 he quickly concedes that this defense is weak. Nevertheless, Pogge insists that the absence of sensitivity to environmental diversities in extant forms of RA should not be taken to mean that RA is incapable of accounting for this determinant. In fact, Pogge argues that “the needed correction is in the spirit of the resourcist approach: In measuring resources persons have access to, one must subtract resources standardly needed to enjoy such access – the heavy coat one needs to withstand the Alaskan winter as much as the uniform one may need in order to hold down a job as a mail carrier or waitress.”62 If this correction is truly in the spirit of RA, we grant that the approach is capable of being sensitive to environmental diversities. And yet, the fact that such sensitivity is not a key component of the RA metric suggests that the capacity of RA to account for environmental diversities is inferior to that of CA. The fifth determinant that Pogge addresses—personal heterogeneities—is the most complicated of the lot, and, as Pogge recognizes, the determinant at the heart of the CA vs. RA debate. The main argument here is that “[p]eople have disparate physical characteristics connected with disability, illness, age or gender, and these make their needs diverse.”63 Of all the determinants Sen presents, personal heterogeneities exert the most significant impact on

Sen (1999), 70. Pogge (2002), 23. 62 Ibid. 63 Sen (1999), 70.
60 61

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individual access to valuable resources and functionings alike. Considering this, the open disregard of RA for such heterogeneities is particularly troubling. Pogge sums up the difference in treatment of these human diversities between the two approaches as follows: Resourcists define and consider individual shares without regard to the particular features of the persons whose shares they are. In selecting the various goods in terms of which they define their resourcist metric, and in weighting these selected goods relative to one another, resourcists are guided by some conception of the standard needs and endowments of human beings. Capabilities theorists, by contrast, value the goods persons have access to by reference to the specific needs and endowments of each particular person. In this sense, capability theorists are, while resourcists are not, sensitive to personal heterogeneities.64 In an effort to redeem RA from this rather damaging evaluative deficiency, Pogge asserts that Sen “overstates the contrast” between how the two approaches account for personal heterogeneities and explores a series of particular cases that he believes support this claim. Because Pogge’s discussion here is rather abstract, we briefly consider two examples from his essay before moving to the two conclusions that he draws on this critical issue. One of Pogge’s examples addresses interpersonal physical and mental differences, which heavily impact the conversion of resources into functionings. On Pogge’s view, such differences are captured by RA in as far as they are “shaped by social factors: by the locality and family in which one is raised…and by the culture and institutional order of one’s society.”65 Because such socially-caused interpersonal differences often reflect forms of past or present injustice, Pogge argues that resourcists not only have every reason to account for them, but that they actually address these differences more compellingly than capability theorists. “Whereas the latter criticize institutional schemes for their failure to compensate for special physical and mental frailties,” Pogge writes, “resourcists more powerfully criticize the same institutional schemes for their failure to compensate for frailties they themselves
64 65

Pogge (2002), 23. Pogge (2002), 28.

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produce through the severe mistreatment they impose on so many children and adults.”66 Because the absence of a specific provision for socially-caused heterogeneities in CA results not from oversight but rather from the broader sensitivity of CA to all personal heterogeneities, this difference between the two approaches seems overstated. Nevertheless, Pogge’s point here is well taken: RA can and does account for a significant portion of interpersonal differences that affect conversion rates of goods into achievements. In a similar example, Pogge asserts that RA can respond to gender biases that affect women’s access to valuable functionings much like CA does. Again, this claim rests on the notion that such biases are primarily the result of social factors, and thus are captured by the resourcist framework. On Pogge’s view, “[w]omen’s suffering in the world as it is does not result from social institutions being insufficiently sensitive to the special needs arising from their different natural constitution. Rather, it overwhelmingly results from institutional schemes and cultural practices being far too sensitive to their biological difference by making sex the basis for all kinds of social (legal or cultural) exclusions and disadvantages.”67 As such, the proper remedy to gender biases vis-à-vis access to valuable achievements requires institutional schemes that are genuinely sex neutral, “sensitive to covert forms of discrimination” and built around “an unbiased conception of the standard needs and endowments of human beings.”68 Though Pogge admits that “capability theorists are way ahead of most resourcists” on this score, he believes that the inherently social aspect of the factors involved in such an institutional order make RA fully capable of achieving a similar degree of sensitivity.69 In this way, Pogge demonstrates that RA is not as limited in accounting for Sen’s well-being determinants as it first seems.

Pogge (2002), 29. Pogge (2002), 25. 68 Pogge (2002), 25-6. 69 Pogge (2002), 26.
66 67

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Based on these and other examples, Pogge arrives at two major conclusions regarding personal heterogeneities. First, he demonstrates that RA is capable of accounting for personal heterogeneities that are “socially caused,” by which he means any range of personal attributes—from age to sex to physical and mental constitution—that stand to be adversely impacted by social institutions, practices, and mores, and thus can be accommodated by corrections in these various social factors. Second, Pogge demonstrates that “the causal origins of special needs and disabilities are morally significant” to any RA, in as far as these origins demonstrate a clear connection with social factors, and thus needs and disabilities of this cast will be adequately compensated for under a resourcist framework as a matter of justice.70 While these two conclusions demonstrate that RA is not entirely incapable of accounting for the factors that impact the individual access to valuable resources or achieving life plans that individuals enjoy given a particular index of primary social goods, they also help solidify the criticism of RA that has run throughout this section: because RA focuses exclusively on external social goods and factors, it inevitably remains blind to a core facet of genuine individual access—whether to valuable resources or valuable functionings. As such, though the divide between the two approaches is narrower than it at first appears, it remains sufficiently wide to render CA superior to RA in this evaluative respect, with RA falling short of CA on almost every account. More important, the determinant to which RA claims no sensitivity whatsoever—natural human diversity71—is one of the most significant factors in the conversion of primary goods to valuable freedoms. As Pogge recognizes, this is the real contrast between CA and RA. In order to complete our relative assessment of the two approaches, we thus turn to the second, more dispositive

Pogge (2002), 30. To appreciate how Pogge arrives at these conclusions, see 24-30. Pogge choose this phrasing over “pure personal heterogeneities” because it better captures the essence of the aspects of human diversity that RA fails to account for; as Pogge explains, “such natural diversity may arise from any combination of ordinary genetic variations, selfcaused factors, and differential luck.” (33-4).
70 71

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question raised at the outset of this section: how ought this well-being determinant—to which CA clearly demonstrates greater sensitivity than RA—figure into the assessment of development? INSENSITIVITY TO HUMAN DIVERSITY – A NAIL IN THE RESOURCIST’S COFFIN OR MERELY ‘BEGGING THE QUESTION’? Our foregoing discussion of the degree to which CA and RA account for critical determinants of well-being reveals a great deal about the richness of their respective evaluative components, as well as the potential achievements these approaches stand to make in the realm of development. At this stage, it serves our assessment to restate the major difference between the two approaches established so far. Whereas resourcists define the shares to which individuals have access as “bundles of goods or resources needed by human beings in general, without reference to the natural diversity among them…[a]dherents of the capability approach hold, by contrast, that individual shares should be defined as to take account of “personal characteristics that govern the conversion of primary goods into the person’s ability to promote her ends.””72 In one sense, this conception of the core difference between the approaches supports the intuition implied from the outset of our assessment—namely, that CA is by design more capable than RA of producing the type of comprehensive measurement of well-being and human progress that is so critical in development. And yet, in another sense, the nature of this difference suggests that our entire assessment so far may simply be, as Pogge puts it, “begging the question” of what each of the approaches firmly values. Of the four arguments73 Pogge deems insufficient for resolving the dispute between capabilities and resources, the most important is the assertion—made by adherents of CA
Pogge (2002), 34. Internal quotation is from Sen (1999), 74. These ‘inconclusive’ arguments can be summarized as follows: (1) resources are of merely instrumental significance; (2) personal ethics rather than political philosophy can figure into our choices among alternative public criteria of social justice; (3) differences in human
72 73

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against RA—that “resourcist views ignore the fact that the quality of persons’ lives, their well-being, is substantially affected not only by the resources at their disposal but also by their capacity to employ these resources in the pursuit of ends.”74 While our foregoing assessment supports this charge, Pogge argues that it does little more than restate the obvious difference between the two approaches—not in what they achieve, but in the very principles on which they rest. Now it is true, of course, that the resourcist approach disregards such natural diversity and focuses exclusively on resource inequalities. But this is not an argument against the resourcist approach. This is the resourcist approach. By restating it, loudly and with raised eyebrows, one is merely begging the question, not making progress toward defeating resourcism. Sen is begging the question by assuming that his opponent, like Sen himself, cares about the extent of real inequality of capabilities but then foolishly overlooks one crucial determinant of such inequality. A resourcist, however, is not a foolish capability theorist who overlooks a crucial determinant of inequality in capabilities. Rather a resourcist is someone who believes that any institutional order should be assessed on the basis of the distributive pattern of relevant resources it engenders, without regard to how this distribution of resources correlates with persons’ differential capacities to convert such resources into valuable functionings.75 In identifying a major snag in Sen’s critical assessment of RA—namely, his attempt to critique RA on CA’s terms—Pogge also identifies a major snag in RA as the potential basis for a development paradigm. By restating what resourcists value and what they disregard, loudly and with raised eyebrows, Pogge merely demonstrates the critical limitations in RA’s capacity to evaluate and promote the range of freedoms that hold such a critical place in human development. And, in recognizing that these freedoms are precisely what CA holds as its lodestone, Pogge reinforces our broader intuition that CA is, in fact, the superior theoretical basis for a development paradigm.

capacities to convert resources into functionings are unchosen; and (4) resourcists ignore the importance of individual capacities to employ available resources in pursuit of ends. See Pogge, 34-8. 74 Pogge (2002), 37. 75 Pogge (2002), 38.

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WHERE DO WE GO FROM HERE? Our foregoing assessment makes clear that CA generates a much richer and more complete assessment of individual well-being than RA. More important for our purposes, the freedom and progress that are so critical to development stand at the center stage of Sen’s CA and its metric, making the model all-the-more suited to approaching development. While we may at present feel prepared to uphold CA in its entirety as a superior development paradigm, our assessment of the approach is in truth only partially complete. Seeing the critical value of freedom in development, it is not enough to consider the evaluative aspect of CA and conclude or assessment. Indeed, a thorough assessment demands that we consider the counterpart to this aspect of CA: the agency aspect of freedom. In the next chapter, we conduct an in-depth analysis of freedom, agency, and participation within Sen’s CA. Throughout this analysis, we also consider challenges to the operationalization of CA at the project level, as the most important aspects of this process relate to the agency aspect in its various permutations. By exploring these concerns in the context of freedom and agency, we not only see that the agency aspect is in many ways the greatest promise of CA, but also, and more problematically, that the very richness of this commitment to freedom might actually undermine the potential for success in realizing the approach at the project level. As Sen boldly asserts in Inequality Reexamined, “[v]aluing freedom imposes exacting claims on our attention—claims that cannot be met by looking at something else.”76 In the rest of our assessment, we determine just how exacting these claims are—and, in turn, whether they in fact can only be met—if met at all—by the Capability Approach.


Sen (1992), 38-9.

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“The primary claim is that in evaluating well-being, the value-objects are the functionings and capabilities. That claim neither entails that all types of capabilities are equally valuable, nor indicates that any capability whatsoever—even if totally remote from the person’s life—must have some value in assessing that person’s well-being…The relative valuation of different functionings and capabilities has to be an integral part of the exercise” – Amartya Sen, Inequality Reexamined 77 “The intrinsic importance of human freedom as the preeminent objective of development has to be distinguished from the instrumental effectiveness of freedom of different kinds to promote human freedom….The instrumental role of freedom concerns the way different kinds of rights, opportunities, and entitlements contribute to the expansion of human freedom in general, and thus to promoting development. This relates not merely to the obvious connection that expansion of freedom of each kind must contribute to development since development itself can be seen as a process of enlargement of human freedom in general….The effectiveness of freedom as an instrument lies in the fact that different kinds of freedom interrelate with one another, and freedom of one type may greatly help in advancing freedom of other types.” – Amartya Sen, Development as Freedom 78

In Chapter One, we saw the theoretical superiority of Sen’s CA to Rawls’ RA as an
evaluative basis for development. With its capability-based metric for well-being assessment, CA perceives the major challenges of development in greater depth than RA and promotes the expansion of the core freedoms that are constitutive of human life—and largely lacking for the poorest of the poor. Beyond the commitment to this constitutive role of freedom as the primary end of development, however, CA also embraces the instrumental role of freedom as critical to realizing this end. To fully appreciate the richness of CA and the implications of this complex commitment to freedom, we turn in this chapter to the many aspects of freedom that comprise CA. We pay particular attention to the agency aspect of the approach, assessing how it impacts such central concerns as the construction and valuation of capability sets, the realization of constitutive freedoms, and the depth of social choice at the various stages of capabilities-based development projects. Throughout our assessment, we aim to answer several question regarding freedom, agency, and participation in CA. First, why does Sen ultimately focus on available capabilities

77 78

Sen (1992). Inequality Reexamined. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 46. Sen (1999), Development As Freedom. New York: Oxford University Press, 37.

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rather than achieved functionings as the basis of interpersonal evaluation? Second, what is the true nature of the relationship between the constitutive and instrumental roles of freedom? Is the instrumental role of freedom driven by concerns of efficiency and effectiveness, or are constitutive freedoms enhanced in some way by using freedoms as an instrumental means of achieving them? Third, what kind of practical imperatives do the theoretical commitments to instrumental freedom and agency impose upon CA at the project-level? If individuals in developing nations are enabled to achieve valuable functionings but do not enjoy the opportunity of identifying and choosing among various valuable capability-sets, what is lost? MEASURING FREEDOM – FUNCTIONINGS, CAPABILITIES, OR WHAT?79 Different versions of CA focus their evaluative aspect on functionings, capabilities, or some combination of the two. Depending on this focus, the requirements of freedom in both the evaluative and agency aspects of CA are more or less exacting. As Ian Carter asserts, “resultant interpretations of the capability approach can in turn be shown to permit or imply differing degrees of paternalism, and in this respect to provide more or less adequate reflections of the liberal view of the value of freedom.”80 The least paternalistic versions of CA best reflect the liberal view of freedom, which holds freedom as both intrinsically and instrumentally valuable. Sen’s CA demonstrates a clear preference for focusing on capabilities—at least as the primary measure of well-being, even if this requires examining functionings as an informational supplement.81 “The freedom reflected in the
Parts of this section are reconstructed from a term paper entitled “Overcoming the Dichotomy in Well-Being Measurement Discourse: Toward a More Comprehensive Approach,” written by the author in May, 2007 for POL411: Theories of Justice (taught by Jennifer Rubenstein). Permission was granted by both Prof. Wenar and Prof. Rubenstein. 80 Carter, Ian (June 2003). “Functionings, Capabilities and the Value of Freedom.” Paper prepared for the Third Conference on the Capability Approach: From Sustainable Development to Sustainable Freedom, University of Pavia: Italy, Sept. 7-9, 2003: 3. 81 Many scholars assert that the quantification of freedoms enjoyed at a certain time in many ways depends on the given set of functionings an individual has achieved at that time, and thus functionings may be used to shed light on capabilities. As Marc Fleurbaey observes, “opportunities at time t can only be deduced from actual achievements at t. Therefore, if the capability approach is meant to capture individuals’ current freedom and possibilities, it has to rely on current achievements, actual functionings. Not only may functionings possibly capture the relevant aspects of freedom, but there is no other proxy through which freedom may be observed.” Fleurbaey, Marc (2004). “Equality of Functionings.” Paper prepared for the Theory and Practice of Equality Conference, Harvard University: Cambridge, Massachusetts, 4. Without getting wrapped up in the technicalities of constructing a workable capabilities-based metric, we can recognize

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capability set,” Sen writes, “can be used in other ways as well…It is possible to attach importance to having opportunities that are not taken up. This is a natural direction to go if the process through which outcomes are generated has significance on its own.”82 To see what type of metric gets closest to this view and to better understand Sen’s commitment to the process aspect of freedom and the impact of this commitment on his metric, we consider the relative merits of functionings and capabilities and the information captured by each. Because functionings reflect individuals’ achieved beings and doings, they seem intuitively the most obvious basis for assessing well-being as it relates to development. Recognizing this point, Sen asserts that “the well-being of a person must be thoroughly dependent on the nature of his or her being, i.e. on the functionings achieved.”83 Ingrid Robeyns echoes this sentiment in her assessment of CA: “if we want to measure well-being outcomes, then the appropriate metric is functionings rather than capabilities.”84 A direct reflection of individuals’ constitutive achievements, functionings provide at once the most accurate and the most comprehensive portrait of overall wellness (or lack thereof, as the case may be). And yet, as a result of the vast range of possible functionings to be accounted for and the diversity of values and aspirations within a given society, the use of functionings to measure levels of individual well-being generates several difficulties that compromise the efficacy of the metric. The first major difficulty with a functioning-based metric for measuring well-being is that it requires a paternalistic determination of ‘the good’ that is problematic within the CA

the truth of Fleurbaey’s claim while remaining committed, with Sen, to capabilities as the proper evaluative focus of CA in spirit. That is, we can remain committed to the idea and value of freedom represented by a focus on capabilities while perhaps recognizing a need to augment our evaluation with a look to functionings as a purely informational extension. 82 Sen (1999), 76. 83 Sen (1992), 40. 84 Robeyns, Ingrid (2006). The Capability Approach in Practice. The Journal of Political Philosophy, 14:3, 354.

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framework.85 To measure well-being in this way, we must determine which functionings to value and how much value to assign to them—making the assessment of individual well-being dependent on the index of functionings for their given society. As such, the framework fails to accurately appreciate the quality of a given individual’s life because it assesses the value of that life through the eyes of the State—or a major Western development institution, as the case may be—rather than those of the individual. Though many will argue that outsiders are in fact better situated to judge individuals’ quality of life in a given community, practical ease and efficiency are not sufficient reasons for justifying a paternalistic imposition by Western elites of what constitutes ‘the good life’ on the poor.86 As Sen argues, the selection and balancing of functionings is central to the enterprise rather than damaging to it;87 in this spirit, the process should promote the core values of CA, not undermine them. Any judgment regarding functionings—either on their own merits or in accordance with certain underlying concerns or values—inevitably taints the final measurement of well-being, and thus poses serious problems of under- or overestimation at the individual and societal levels. If the paternalism manifested in the selection and weighting of functionings reflects what the functionings framework leaves out,88 this second problem reflects what the framework leaves in. By measuring well-being in terms of individuals’ actual achievements— focusing on the end-results of their respective efforts, choices, etc. with no significant regard

While this issue of valuation and social choice is of great significance in our larger discussion, we treat it only briefly now in the interest of clearly laying out the relative merits of functionings and capabilities before moving, in a subsequent section, to a much deeper assessment of these very serious concerns. 86 This concern is indeed valid, if a bit tangential to the central subject of the thesis. Because it fits best with the ancillary issues raised in our main discussion, we put it aside until the Conclusion where it can receive more thorough treatment. 87 Sen (1992), 44. “The need for selection and discrimination is neither an embarrassment, nor a unique difficulty, for the conceptualization of functionings.” 88 Namely: individuals’ understandings of their own well-being, both objectively and compared with others, and the failure to account—as with the simpler resource and utility frameworks—for individuals’ varying and unique preferences, as well as for the impact of the act of choosing on ultimate well-being. While more complex versions of the approach try to compensate for those functionings that are potentially undervalued or left out by including what Sen calls “more complex achievements,” such as individuals’ levels of happiness, self-respect, etc. (39), the risk for miscalculation remains high, and even these seemingly objective and broad functionings will themselves be tainted somewhat by the very nature and conception of the index generated for measurement by the State.

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for these efforts and choices themselves89—the functionings framework accounts too much for ultimate achievement, merging a host of important considerations into a single measurement that thus seems over-inclusive and vague in its insights. Unless the sole purpose of measuring functionings is producing an objective assessment of individual wellbeing with no interest in the relative influence of external and internal factors on this well-being, a functioning-based metric proves not only distorted but also limited as a tool for identifying the critical factors that determine actual capabilities. Seeing this, we move to capabilities as a potentially superior basis for well-being measurement. Whereas the relationship between functionings and well-being is clear, the relationship between capabilities and well-being seems much less so, since the very essence of capabilities as freedoms to achieve keeps them prior to individuals’ actual achievements. However, capabilities are relevant to well-being for at least two reasons: (a) they represent the freedom to achieve and enjoy well-being, and (b) “achieved well-being itself depend[s] on the capability to function.”90 Sen identifies constitutive value in the choices available to individuals. Simply realizing a set of valuable functionings is an incomplete well-being achievement, as genuine well-being depends on actually enjoying the capabilities involved in getting there. Whether or not individuals capitalize on a particular capability to achieve the corresponding functioning, the very presence of that freedom increases the overall value of one’s capability set, which in turn reflects a higher degree of well-being and development. Before discussing this value of choice in greater detail, we consider two common concerns about capability-based well-being assessment.

While Sen suggests that “[I]t is, in fact, possible to represent functionings in such a way that they already reflect the alternatives available and thus the choices enjoyed,” (52) this seems an attempt to stretch the functionings framework beyond its core theoretical failings rather than a genuine belief in its viability as traditionally conceived. 90 Sen (1992), 40-41.

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Although capabilities consist of freedoms to achieve rather than means to such freedoms, they may still be understood as means in their own right, making the capabilitybased metric vulnerable to a charge of ‘fetishizing’ means, much like Rawls’ resourcist metric. To be sure, the ‘means’ on which CA focuses are much more complex than the means that comprise RA; and yet, capabilities are means to achievement because they provide the foundations from which achievement springs—they are, in other words, the means to functionings’ ends. Just as RA fails to account for “differences in individuals’ capacities to transform given stocks of resources for the satisfaction of their goals,”91 CA— though reflecting individuals’ varying capacities to achieve—cannot account for the end-results individuals attain in using these capacities. In this way, it generates a portrait of individual well-being that is potential rather than actual, which may very well seem like an incomplete measure of development. A related but conceptually separate concern with the capability-based metric is that it falls short “of telling us enough about the fairness or equity of the processes involved, or about the freedom of citizens to invoke and utilise procedures that are equitable.”92 In a certain sense, this difficulty contrasts with the concern of paternalism identified with the functionings-based metric; whereas the focus on what individuals achieve through functionings inevitably imposes one or another conception of ‘the good’ while disregarding individual choices, the focus on what individuals have the freedom to achieve through capabilities inevitably misses the ultimate realization of (or failure to realize) functionings and the particular factors that contribute to this. Nevertheless, Sen’s CA is capable of responding to these concerns in two ways. First, the richest construal of the capability-based metric accounts for potential procedural and institutional disparities in the freedom of individuals
Arneson, Richard (1993). “Equality,” in Goodin, R. and Pettit, P., eds. A Companion to Contemporary Political Philosophy. New York: Blackwell, 492. Arneson is here reframing an earlier argument by Sen rather than advancing a unique claim. 92 Sen (Jul. 2005). Human Rights and Capabilities. Journal of Human Development, 6:2, 156.

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to realize capabilities, and thus captures the true depth of freedom in a given social order. Second, and more to the point, Sen’s CA views freedom as both the primary means and ultimate end of development; it doesn’t fetishize freedom to achieve something else, but rather embraces certain freedoms instrumentally to foster the achievement of the core freedoms toward which development moves. The instrumental freedoms used at one stage in development are recognized as constitutive in themselves at later stages, thus creating an ongoing cycle through which freedoms are valued for both their instrumental and constitutive purposes. Given the complexity of this notion and the still nebulous nature of the relationship between the constitutive and instrumental aspects of freedom in Sen’s CA, we turn now to assess this relationship and better understand why the expansion the capability set to which individuals have access is itself a valuable achievement. THE MANY FACES OF FREEDOM IN SEN’S CA What is the true nature of the relationship between the constitutive and instrumental roles of freedom? Is the instrumental role of freedom purely driven by concerns of efficiency and effectiveness, or are constitutive freedoms enhanced in some way by using freedoms as an instrumental means of achieving them? As established in Chapter One, the constitutive role of freedom holds certain freedoms—such as the freedom to be well-nourished, the freedom to live a long and healthy life, the freedom to partake in the life of one’s community, etc.—as constitutive of human life; without these freedoms, human life is incomplete. Beyond this constitutive value of freedom, Sen identifies the instrumental value of freedom as equally important; on his account, an individual who achieves valuable functionings—which are themselves tied to constitutive freedoms—without enjoying similarly robust freedom to choose these functionings has a lower quality of life than an individual who enjoys both equally. As Carter notes, quoting Sen, “[t]he good life ‘is, inter Freedom, Agency, and Participation 40

alia, a life of freedom’”93—achievement without freedom is insufficient. Because such achievement requires the dual presence of freedom in its constitutive and instrumental aspects, Sen’s commitment to each of these two is of equal strength. To see how these two faces of freedom relate to each other, we first turn to the instrumental value of freedom to see how it is realized in Sen’s CA. THE INSTRUMENTAL ROLE OF FREEDOM—OPPORTUNITY, PROCESS AND THE AGENCY ASPECT The core dimensions of instrumental freedom in Sen’s CA, manifested primarily in the form of individual agency, are: political freedoms, economic facilities, social opportunities, transparency guarantees, and protective security.94 In each of these categories, instrumental freedom consists of processes and opportunities that empower individual action and foster choice among valuable functionings. As noted in Chapter One, shortcomings within any of the five dimensions in either of these respects cause the persistence of unfreedom.95 Because of the empirical linkages among these various dimensions of instrumental freedoms—such as political freedoms and economic security, social opportunities and economic participation, and economic facilities and personal affluence—failings in one dimension can generate similar failings in others. More positively, the expansion of freedoms in any of these dimensions can facilitate similar expansion in others. In this way, agency under Sen’s CA is multifaceted and reflects a sort of gestalt instrumental freedom. While the relevant freedoms in each dimension are of tremendous importance, they only reach their full potential when part of a comprehensive range of freedoms—a sweeping capability set—under which they are maximally effective.

Carter (2003), 5 citing Sen (1988), Freedom of Choice: Concept and Content. European Economic Review, 32, 290. Sen (1999), 38-40. See also note 39 supra. 95 See notes 31-33 supra and accompanying text.
93 94

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To better understand the empirical linkages Sen identifies,96 we briefly consider the process and opportunity components of the five dimensions of instrumental freedom he address. Then, we conduct a more thorough assessment of one dimension—political freedoms—to see how instrumental freedoms augment and are extended by constitutive freedoms. The first dimension, political freedoms, includes civil rights and encompasses an individual’s freedom to participate in the political life of his community free from coercion. Critical here are the opportunities to elect who governs, to select the principles of governance, to choose among political parties, and to partake in political dialogue, as well as the procedural guarantees of free press, voting rights, and the like.97 The second dimension, economic facilities, is closely connected to political freedoms, and encompasses the capacity of individuals to actively participate in the market economy. Here, opportunities to consume, produce, and exchange commodities are of critical importance, as are the procedural mechanisms—such as fair distributional arrangements and open market guarantees—that facilitate the realization of individual economic entitlements.98 When empowered to gain economic security and escape the burdens faced when one lacks consistent access to life’s most basic commodities, individuals are more able and more inclined to participate as active political agents; in turn, when exercising political agency free from fears of paternalistic or clientilistic power leveraging by elite actors, individuals are more able and more inclined to pursue personal economic gains in the market. Not surprisingly, similar linkages are seen across the other dimensions of instrumental freedom. Just as political freedoms and economic facilities generate important linkages, so to do freedoms in the third dimension: social opportunities. This category encompasses what Sen

Though the discussion that follows addresses these linkages entirely in the abstract, Sen does provide compelling historical examples to substantiate his points. For this, See Sen (1999), 40-53. 97 Sen (1999), 38. 98 Sen (1999), 38-9.

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calls “the freedom to live better,” driven primarily by social arrangements for education, health care, and other such facilities. Opportunities to be educated, to live a healthy life, and to avoid preventable morbidity are very important here, as are the corresponding procedural arrangements that facilitate equal access to these opportunities among society’s various groups and ensure at least a basic level of quality in these facilities.99 The linkages along this dimension are most important for political freedoms and economic opportunities, as the capacities fostered by the opportunities and procedural freedoms here lead directly to more effective economic and political participation. As Sen explains, critical barriers to effective agency in these areas, such as illiteracy, malnourishment, and chronic illness, are remedied by rich social opportunity. In turn, societies where individuals enjoy greater political and economic freedom are inherently more likely to provide for improved education, health care, and the like. The fourth and fifth dimensions of instrumental freedom—transparency guarantees and protective security—are of equally critical import to human freedom, if a bit secondary in what they represent. Transparency guarantees encompass the opportunities and processes that ensure the institutional and interpersonal openness that a society built on trust requires. Stated differently, transparency guarantees consist of “the freedom to deal with one another under guarantees of disclosure and lucidity.”100 Critical here is the opportunity to check against illicit or dishonest activities—at the individual and societal levels—and the corresponding procedural factors, such as the right to disclosure, that facilitate such opportunity. As Sen aptly explains, “[t]hese guarantees have a clear instrumental role in preventing corruption, financial irresponsibility and underhand dealings.”101 Of similar importance is protective security, which encompasses the provision of a social safety net to
Sen (1999), 39. Ibid. 101 Sen (1999), 40.
99 100

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prevent against a sector of a national population falling back into a state of destitution. The main aspects of this domain are “fixed institutional arrangements such as unemployment benefits and statutory income supplements to the indigent as well as ad hoc arrangements such as famine relief or emergency public employment to generate income for destitutes.”102 By providing for freedoms in this dimension, a society ensures that the freedoms fostered across the other four dimensions are not lost unnecessarily due to inevitable vulnerabilities and vicissitudes in the political, economic, and social facets of the community.


Seeing the basic structure of the instrumental freedom at the core of Sen’s CA, we return to the dimension of political freedoms to explore more thoroughly how the evaluative and agency aspects of freedom relate to each other—and, most importantly, to understand why the freedoms captured in the evaluative aspect can only truly be achieved in the rich sense of liberal freedom when generated by free agency. This particular dimension is especially helpful in our assessment for two reasons: first, political freedoms are presented by Sen as preeminent in development to other freedoms and needs; second, they demonstrate particularly well how free agency as an instrumental component of CA reinforces the priorities generated by its evaluative aspect, making individuals active agents in the improvement of their lives not only because such agency is highly effective, but also because the freedoms comprising such agency are viewed as ends of development themselves. For the sake of clarity, we focus here on the nuances of political freedom and leave the question of what a commitment to such freedoms actually demands at the project level to the next section.



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Sen considers basic political and liberal rights preeminent for three reasons: “(1) their direct importance in human living associated with basic capabilities (including that of political and social participation); (2) their instrumental role in enhancing the hearing that people get in expressing and supporting their claims to political attention (including the claims of economic needs); (3) their constructive role in the conceptualization of “needs” (including the understanding of “economic needs” in a social context).”103 Sen’s use of the term direct is synonymous with constitutive or, stated differently, with the target value of evaluation CA. In turn, the constructive role of political freedoms, while connected with the instrumental role, arises at a more foundational level; that is, constructive freedom brings agency to the very earliest stage of CA where the selection and valuation of capability-sets are the product of social choice driven by local agents. To appreciate how these three levels of freedom impact an individual’s quality of life, it is helpful to consider the figure on the next page. As the title of the figure indicates, the values of Sen’s freedoms are progressive, meaning that higher-level freedoms augment the value of lower-level ones (e.g. the direct value of freedom is enhanced when individuals also enjoy access to instrumental freedoms, as is the collective value of these two freedoms when individuals have access to constructive freedoms.) The blue boxes in the figure represent Sen’s three levels of freedom, and the green boxes represent the various levels of human life possible within a given social scheme. The quality of a human life depends on the levels of freedom an individual enjoys. An individual who achieves valuable functionings without any freedom has the lowest level of human life, while an individual who achieves valuable functionings while also enjoying genuine access to freedom in its direct, instrumental, and constructive aspects has the highest possible quality of human life on Sen’s construction.


Sen (1999), 148.

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As noted earlier, the dimension of political freedoms includes civil rights and encompasses an individual’s freedom to participate in the political life of his community free from coercion. Though Sen presents these freedoms as preeminent, many development economists argue against this preeminence by pointing to economic freedoms—the freedoms to acquire and utilize basic commodities—as most important to the poorest of the poor. For an individual living in abject poverty, Sen’s critics argue, economic needs outweigh the complexities of democratic participation and political liberty; however important such freedoms become above the level of basic subsistence, it is nonsensical to argue for an individual’s political right to vote when that individual’s natural right to live a healthy life is constantly at risk.104 Though Sen recognizes the intuitive appeal of this claim, he nevertheless argues that political freedoms are not only preeminent at all levels of economic need, but that “the intensity of economic needs adds to—rather than subtracts from—the urgency of political freedoms.”105 Why is this the case? The thrust of Sen’s argument for the preeminence of political freedoms in development rests in the direct, instrumental, and constructive values he identifies in these freedoms. In regard to the direct importance of political freedoms, the argument reflects the broad commitment to freedom at the heart of CA—that is, the notion that achieved functionings are somewhat empty if they don’t result from genuinely free choice. Continuing the critical line of Sen’s position, we can imagine an argument that the functionings that fulfill basic economic needs—to be well-nourished, to live a long and healthy life, to live free from personal harm—are prior to political freedoms. In the spirit of his foundational position, we can similarly imagine Sen responding that these functionings only partially fulfill
While the treatment of this criticism may seems somewhat vague, we are more interested here in demonstrating the richness of Sen’s commitment to political freedoms and agency than in questioning the efficacy of this commitment, as it is this richness against which CA must be measured at the project-level. Later in our assessment, when considering the limits in operationalizing CA and entertaining potential modifications to the approach, we may reprise some of these critical concerns as potential bases for compromise between CA and RA at the project level. 105 Sen (1999), 148.

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the needs that they aim to if ushered by some sort of authoritarian or totalitarian regime. “We have reason to value liberty and freedom of expression and action in our lives,” 106 Sen writes, and the absence of such liberty and freedoms in the fulfillment of basic economic needs diminishes the value of this fulfillment. Perhaps more important, the “informed and unregimented formation of our values,” otherwise understood as the deliberative articulation of these needs, requires extensive political freedoms and civil rights—even at the level of basic subsistence.107 This notion brings us back to the core decision in Sen’s CA to focus on capabilities rather than functionings, and cannot be overemphasized. The underlying issue here is that Sen’s critics regard basic economic or material needs as absolute or objective rather than relative, as discussed in Chapter One with regard to well-being determinants. At this level, critics hold that “there are circumstances that are objectively so desperate – with individuals suffering from starvation and malnutrition – that relative considerations are not involved.”108 In presenting this position, Makiko Harrison—a World Bank employee—points to Sen’s own notion of “an irreducible absolutist core in the idea of poverty,”109 arguing that individual well-being cannot purely be conceived in relative terms. However, even if we grant that the certain basic needs of individuals living in abject poverty are absolute or fixed when broadly conceived—e.g. the needs to have food, clothing, and shelter—the determination of what and how much of these needs each individual requires is only possible as the result of free and participatory dialogue, as only this type of dialogue can capture the information needed to move beyond mere economic and material inputs and actually ensure that these basic capabilities are enjoyed by all members of society. In

Sen (1999), 152. Sen (1999), 152. 108 Harison, Makiko (2001). “From Theory to Measurement: some issues raised in operationalising Professor Sen’s Capability Approach”. Paper prepared for conference “Justice and Poverty: examining Sen’s Capability Approach.” Cambridge, UK: St. Edmund’s College, New Hall and Lucy Cavendish College, 5-7 June 2001: 7. It is important to note that Harrison raises this concern not because she wishes to stand behind it but because she believes it requires some attention from proponents of CA. 109 Sen (Mar. 1983). Poor, Relatively Speaking. Oxford Economic Papers, 35:1, 153-69 in Harrison (2001), 7.
106 107

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facilitating such dialogue, political freedoms are directly important to human well-being and development under CA, and thus rightfully regarded as preeminent to other considerations. As with the argument from the direct value of political freedoms, the argument from the instrumental value of such freedoms demonstrates their preeminence even outside of a commitment à la Sen to freedom in its richest conception. The main contention here is that a persistent emphasis on political freedoms will generate governments that are more accountable and more responsive to the needs of their citizens, and that individuals who enjoy core political freedoms are thus more likely to have their actual basic needs met than individuals living without such basic liberties. To demonstrate this, Sen cites the trend of famines throughout history. According to Sen’s assessment, famines have occurred in every possible context where political freedoms were lacking, but “they have never materialized in any country that is independent, that goes to elections regularly, that has opposition parties to voice criticisms and that permits newspapers to report freely and question the wisdom of government policies without extensive censorship.”110 The primary reason for this trend seems to be that individuals enjoying extensive political freedoms are empowered to hold their national governments accountable for distributional disparities or unfair economic policies, and thus the circumstances that might generally lead to famine in countries where portions of the population lack voice and political leverage are effectively rectified before extreme deprivation ensues. As we discussed above in regard to the inter-dimensional linkages of instrumental freedoms, political freedoms are absolutely necessary for utilizing economic facilities—themselves of critical importance to preventing famine. However compelling, the contrapositive—that the absence of economic facilities precludes the realization of genuine political freedoms—is not actually a valid claim against the
Sen (1999), 152. The institutional designs mentioned by Sen in which famines have occurred include: ancient kingdoms, contemporary authoritarian societies, primitive tribal communities, modern technocratic dictatorships, colonial economies run by imperialists, and newly independent countries of the south run by despotic national leaders or intolerant single parties.

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preeminence of political freedoms. Whereas economic facilities are nearly impossible to realize as necessary to meet basic needs consistently when individuals lack political freedoms, political freedoms may be quite substantively realized in the absence of economic facilities, and the expansion of economic facilities simply extends the reach of these political freedoms. Given the relative workings of the direct and instrumental roles of political freedom in human well-being and development, we see clearly that the relationship between these two aspects truly is symbiotic. The achievement of the substantive freedoms at the heart of the evaluative aspect of CA depends primarily on the rich facilitation of the instrumental freedoms that comprise its agency aspect. In turn, the instrumental focus on freedoms gradually elevates various instrumental freedoms to the level of evaluative importance; that is, freedoms that may at the most basic level of development be viewed as of purely instrumental value will, as other foundational freedoms are made available, become themselves the direct ends rather than simply the means of development. It is this everevolving nature of Sen’s commitment to freedom that makes CA so compelling as a development paradigm. And yet, this commitment is also the main source of difficulty in efforts to operationalize Sen’s CA. Before turning to the issue of project-level operationalization, we must consider the third aspect of political freedoms proposed by Sen—namely, its constructive value—to appreciate just how extensive Sen’s commitment to freedom is and, more pressingly, to see at what levels of CA Sen holds this commitment fixed. The constructive role of political freedom brings agency to the foundational level of CA, at which social choice and valuation of capability-sets and functionings occurs. As Sen explains, “[p]olitical and civil rights, especially those related to the guaranteeing of open discussion, debate, criticism, and dissent, are central to the processes of generating informed Freedom, Agency, and Participation 50

and reflected choices. These processes are crucial to the formation of values and priorities, and we cannot, in general, take preference as given independently of public discussion, that is, irrespective of whether open debates and interchanges are permitted or not.”111 In upholding freedom via agency at this critical formative stage of CA, Sen demonstrates a sweeping commitment to freedom. This critical step ensures the theoretical efficacy of CA and truly sets Sen’s model apart from even the most favorable construal of Rawls’ RA advanced by Pogge. While we can imagine a similar constructive role of political freedom in Pogge’s RA for selecting and weighting resources, this constructive role would be purely instrumental under RA, while it is both instrumentally and directly valuable under CA. By making this distinction, Sen’s CA raises the bar for what competing development paradigms must strive toward in both ends and means. And yet, this move also raises the bar for project-level manifestations of Sen’s approach. To see whether this constructive freedom aspect of CA proves prohibitive to the successful realization of the approach as a whole, we shift our assessment to the practical imperatives that Sen imposes upon himself with his complex commitment to freedom. THE PRACTICAL IMPERATIVES AND IMPLICATIONS OF SEN’S THEORETICAL COMMITMENTS What kind of practical imperatives does Sen’s commitment to freedom and agency impose upon CA at the project-level? If individuals in developing nations are enabled to achieve valuable functionings but do not enjoy the opportunity of identifying and choosing among various valuable capability-sets, what is lost? In the extensive literature on attempts to ‘operationalize’ Sen’s CA, these seem to be the most pressing questions—and indeed the most common points of tension among critics and adherents of the approach as a
Sen (1999), 153.


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development paradigm. To adequately assess these questions and arrive at conclusions that can guide our assessment in Chapters Three and Four of two alternative development initiatives, we proceed through this section in two stages. First, we identify the practical imperatives deriving from the commitments to freedom in Sen’s CA. Second, we explore these commitments as they relate to the primary challenges in operationalizing the approach: the construction, selection, and valuation of capability sets, and the balance between topdown institutional action and bottom-up local agency. In laying out these imperatives and the practical complications they raise, we position ourselves for project-level assessments to see what sort of participatory frameworks best avoid the pitfalls of the theory-practice divide that Sen’s CA generates. PRACTICAL IMPERATIVES To ensure that we don’t overlook any of the practical imperatives of Sen’s CA, it is helpful at this stage to briefly recap the commitments Sen makes in constructing the approach. At the most basic level, Sen commits CA to valuing freedoms—in the form of capabilities—rather than resources. Within the broad notion of freedom, Sen advances several aspects and values that further define his commitment. Recognizing the value of freedom at the direct (evaluative), instrumental (agency), and constructive (foundational) levels, Sen commits himself to freedom as the end, means, and foundational promise of his CA. In this way, Sen’s commitment to freedom places a staggering set of imperatives on CA at the practical level. The first imperative, deriving from the commitment to the direct value of freedom, requires CA to account in practice for personal heterogeneities and various economic, political, and social determinants of well-being that RA overlooks in varying degrees.112 In


For a refresher of these determinants, see Chapter One, pp. 23-27.

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turn, the espousal of capabilities over functionings requires the approach to measure success not by the functionings that individuals achieve, but rather by the real opportunities these individuals enjoy. As such, CA-based projects will remain incomplete and unsuccessful if individuals are granted valuable functionings but denied the opportunity to choose among a set of functionings that they have reason to value. This requirement relates directly to the imperatives generated by the various aspects or roles of freedom to which Sen commits CA, particularly at the instrumental level. The second imperative, deriving from Sen’s commitment to the instrumental value of freedom, requires CA to promote freedom not only as the end but also as the means of development. This factors into CA-style projects primarily during the implementation phase, and precludes the use of strategies or inputs that extenuate unfreedoms or undermine the freedoms enjoyed by individuals before the outset of the project. For example, the imposition of a particular vocational curriculum through which all community members gain key agricultural skills that enable them to achieve the functionings of being well nourished and of participating in the free market would prove problematic under Sen’s CA. Given Sen’s commitment to instrumental freedom, the fact that the vocational program in this example was imposed rather than promoted as one of many opportunities for acquiring commodities and participating as an economic agent renders it less favorable than a similar program designed and selected by the community under this second imperative. To avoid such shortcomings, CA programs must rely on means that utilize freedoms instrumentally, engaging the poor as active agents of change and thereby remaining true in implementation to the principles on which their ultimate objectives rest. The third imperative, deriving from Sen’s commitment to the constructive value of freedom, requires that CA devolve decision-making processes regarding the targets, Freedom, Agency, and Participation 53

valuation, and implementation procedures for the program to the local level. Though this imperative seems a necessary component of any development paradigm that upholds freedom as its driving purpose, it also proves the most challenging imperative to satisfy. If Sen’s commitment to freedoms is as sweeping as he suggests, and if freedom and agency are the ultimate ends of CA, they should be advanced as the primary means of the approach at all stages. And to ensure that the evaluative and instrumental commitments of CA are not merely a Potemkin village of freedom behind which a less admirable development agenda lurks, it only makes sense to commit to freedom at the most basic level of the approach. To that end, this constructive imperative calls for empowering individuals by way of deliberative participatory processes to construct the community’s core capability-set, conduct the valuational process of weighting the selected capabilities relative to one another, and develop an implementation strategy by which these capabilities may be fairly and sustainably reached for all members of the community. While these constructive requirements are easy to articulate, they are much more difficult to satisfy in practice, as our discussion in the next stage makes all too clear. CHALLENGES OF OPERATIONALIZATION Just as the practical imperatives of Sen’s CA correspond directly to the theoretical commitments to freedom at the heart of the approach, the central challenges to operationalizing Sen’s CA correspond to these practical imperatives. The first challenge to operationalizing Sen’s CA is primarily informational, and stems from the complex nature of capabilities, which are neither easily quantified nor the subject of high informational demand within the field of development. As Sen concedes, “the capability set is not directly observable, and has to be constructed on the basis of presumptions….Thus, in practice, one might have to settle often enough for relating well-being to the achieved—and observed— Freedom, Agency, and Participation 54

functionings, rather than trying to bring in the capability set.”113 Such restrictions in available data pose considerable but not entirely prohibitive challenges to operationalizing CA. Discussing this complication, Flavio Comim observes that “practical compromises are intrinsic to the counterfactual nature of the Capability Approach.”114 In many ways, this observation is spot-on. In as far as Sen’s CA focuses on an indicator of well-being and development that has never been widely used, it is counterfactual to the nature of the available data; as such, compromises at the practical level of CA may well be necessary to make the approach workable. Nevertheless, Sen defends CA in the face of these informational limitations, arguing that “[p]ractical compromises have to be based with an eye both to (1) the range of our ultimate interests, and (2) the contingent circumstances of informational availability.”115 Following this logic, we already established in our foregoing discussion of functionings versus capabilities that capabilities provide the best measure of development—conceived properly as freedom. In turn, keeping in mind that the ‘contingent circumstances of informational availability’ regarding capabilities derive as much from the historic lack of demand for such information as from the challenges of quantification, we need not view this first challenge to operationalization as particularly troubling. Much like the informational challenge generated by the first imperative, the implementational challenge generated by the second imperative is serious but far from prohibitive to the operationalization of CA. Because the pursuit of the freedom in CA must be driven by freedoms itself, the implementation of CA poses serious difficulties in the way of devising processes that are efficient and effective while remaining true to the spirit of the

Sen (1992), 52. Comim, Flavio (June 2001). “Operationalizing Sen’s Capability Approach.” Paper prepared for conference “Justice and Poverty: examining Sen’s Capability Approach.” Cambridge, UK: St. Edmund’s College, New Hall and Lucy Cavendish College, 5-7 June 2001: 9. 115 Sen (1992), 53.
113 114

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approach. The primary reason for this is similar to the primary challenge of quantifying capabilities—lack of information on the myriad factors that can hinder individual freedom makes efforts to utilize freedoms as the means of development problematically complex in ways that using resources or institutional inputs are not. Because RA uses quantifiable primary goods as the means to development, project-level implementation involves procuring these goods and making them available to all individuals. In contrast, because CA uses freedoms that defy simple quantification, the process of determining which freedoms are most instrumentally effective for achieving a given set of direct freedoms and then accounting for the myriad factors that foster or compromise these freedoms makes projectlevel implementation in CA much more complicated. Extending this difficulty of accurately perceiving the freedoms individuals enjoy, CA must also attend to the potentially damaging linkages among the dimensions of instrumental freedom Sen identifies. In our earlier discussion of these linkages, we established the interconnectedness and mutually reinforcing quality of these various dimensions; however, this interconnectedness can have negative as well as positive impacts. To see this, we reconsider the interaction between political freedoms and economic facilities discussed above in light of a criticism advanced by Séverine Deneulin. Recognizing that the operationalization of Sen’s CA will inevitably take place amidst certain inequalities, Deneulin points to “the tension between the freedom to participate in market economic exchange and the freedom to participate in the life of the community.” As she asserts, “[a]lthough the freedoms to pursue market transactions lead to efficiency results, they may also result in greater inequalities, and corrective measures might need to be taken so that the freedoms in

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all different institutions, market and non-market, may be guaranteed.”116 How are we to prevent against the instrumental freedoms in one dimension undermining those in another? As with finding a solution to the informational challenge of a capabilities-based metric, this implementational challenge requires complex and thoroughgoing guarantees of freedom in all of its various aspects. But such guarantees, while difficult to ensure, are far from impossible, as Deneulin demonstrates. Drawing on the work of Drèze and Sen, Deneulin proposes two solutions for fostering more equal access to political freedoms in environments of inequality: “First, the capability of the underprivileged for self-assertion must be enhanced through offering incentives for them to organize in political organizations. Second, a sense of solidarity must be created between the most privileged and the underprivileged.”117 While these solutions are by no means easily achieved, they are also by no means impossible. With persistent effort, development programs can prevent against advances in one dimension of instrumental freedoms causing setbacks in another. To do so, CA must remain acutely attune to the determinants of individual freedom and ensure that access is genuine rather than nominal, as genuine free agency is the only way that the process of CA satisfies the requirements of this second imperative. The third imperative, requiring the devolution of freedom to the constructive level of CA, poses by far the most complex challenges to operationalizing Sen’s approach. While Sen’s commitment to constructive freedoms is admirable and theoretically compelling, it poses considerable challenges in the way of arriving at an efficient, sustainable, and free deliberative process by which aid recipients become active aid participants—agents of change in their own lives. Not surprisingly, it is in the interest of responding to these
Deneulin, Séverine (Mar. 2005). Promoting Human Freedoms Under Conditions of Inequalities: a procedural framework. Journal of Human Development, 6:1, pp. 79. 117 Deneulin (2005), 80.

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challenges that many versions of CA depart from Sen’s constructive commitment, embracing freedom only after the constructive tasks of the foundational stage have been completed. While the operational ease of using a set formula to guide the valuation and facilitation of some universal capability-set through an elite-driven process is, as Sen acknowledges, appealing for practical reasons, it constitutes a serious departure from the extensive commitment to freedom on which Sen’s CA rests. Perhaps the best demonstration of this is Martha Nussbaum’s well-known listing of capabilities she deems universalizable. Before considering the operational challenges of underspecification in Sen’s CA—that is, the absence of a particular list of capabilities to inform a CA development project—we thus consider the most widely supported compromise by examining Nussbaum’s list. In the first chapter of her book Women and Human Development, Nussbaum advances a list of central human capabilities that represents, on her view, “an enumeration of central elements of truly human functionings that can command a broad cross-cultural consensus.”118 When Women and Human Development was published, the list contained ten distinct components: life; bodily health; bodily integrity; senses, imagination, and thought; emotions; practical reason; affiliation; other species; play; and control over one’s political and material environment.119 How did Nussbaum arrive at this particular set of capabilities? According to her account, the list represents an overlapping consensus resulting from “years of cross-cultural discussion, and comparisons between earlier and later versions…on the part of people with otherwise very different views of human life.”120 Clearly aiming to rebut charges of cultural diversity that might undermine her allegedly universalizable capabilities, Nussbaum asserts that a critical aspect of the list is its “multiple realizability: its members can be more concretely specified in
Nussbaum, Martha (2000). “In Defense of Universal Values,” ch. 1 in Women and Human Development. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 74. It is important to note here that Nussbaum’s CA is highly complex and it is not our intention here to elaborate the theory at all completely. For our purposes, Nussbaum’s use of this list is truly our only focus within the broad scope of her theory, and thus the myriad nuances and compelling lines of argument in which it consists are left aside in this work. 119 For an elaboration on each of these capabilities see Nussbaum (2000), 78-80. 120 Nussbaum (2000), 76.

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accordance with local beliefs and circumstances.”121 Given all of this, it is not surprising that many find Nussbaum’s list compelling. Not only does it avoid the practical complications of specifying at the broadest level the foundational capabilities on which CA should be elaborated and implemented in a given setting, it also satisfies the constructive imperative of Sen’s CA to a considerable degree, in as far as it is genuinely the result of overlapping consensus by aid participants and its ‘multiple realizability’ affords the poor a further opportunity to specify how exactly they want these central capabilities to look on the ground. Unfortunately for Nussbaum, and for proponents of CA interested in framing a theoretically defensible and practically workable paradigm, she overstates the richness of constructive freedom in her list, without which it proves even less compelling than flawed attempts to operationalize Sen’s CA in its holistic form. In considering the problematically paternalistic nature of Nussbaum’s list, the depth of her ‘overlapping consensus’ seems limited at best. As Alison Jaggar asserts, “Nussbaum fails to provide convincing evidence that people across the world who are reasonably wellinformed and uncoerced agree on something like her list of capabilities.”122 Even if Nussbaum’s interlocutors had agreed upon certain basic capabilities, we have reason to remain skeptical in as far as the voiceless poor—the dispossessed and disenfranchised, the rural and the destitute—lack any sort of agency in her consensus. Beyond this, the paternalistic character of Nussbaum’s list is perhaps best seen in the fact that she maintains ultimate control over it; unlike a global public opinion survey, in which each ballot was calculated and the ten most frequently selected capabilities were presented as the central human capabilities, Nussbaum’s list is ultimately the product of her own construction. “[A]lthough she acknowledges that not everyone agrees with her list,” Jaggar writes, “she
Nussbaum (2000), 77. Jaggar, Alison M. (2006). Reasoning About Well-Being: Nussbaum’s Methods of Justifying Capabilities. The Journal of Political Philosophy, 14:3, 312.
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rarely offers examples of disagreement, nor does she explain her criteria for including or excluding contested items. The absence of explicit criteria for interpreting and assessing other people’s commitment to the capabilities is especially troubling….”123 Echoing this concern, Ingrid Robeyns notes that many critics believe Nussbaum “has no authority to speak on behalf of the people to whom this list would apply, and that her list therefore lacks legitimacy.”124 In all of these ways, Nussbaum’s list demonstrates the critical pitfalls of attempting to derive some universalizable fixed list for the sake of operational ease—not because listing basic capabilities is reprehensible as such, but because such listing is achieved at the expense of the social choice and public discourse that is so critical in CA. Sen himself characterizes this problem best: “The problem is not with listing important capabilities, but with insisting on one pre-determined canonical list of capabilities, chosen by theorists without any general social discussion or public reasoning. To have such a fixed list, emanating entirely from pure theory, is to deny the possibility of fruitful public participation on what should be included and why.”125 To see what such fruitful participation might look like, and to identify the limitations of such constructive freedom as an extension of Sen’s agency aspect to the foundational level of CA, we turn to the final challenge in operationalizing Sen’s approach: empowering the poor with constructive freedom. The theoretically problematic paternalism of Nussbaum’s list demonstrates the challenge in any effort to operationalize constructive agency in the selection and weighting of capabilities. To recap, Sen’s CA requires that the poor act as agents of change at all levels of the development process. The primary means for facilitating such constructive agency is a robust participatory process by which social choice is utilized to determine the capabilities of value and their relative weights in the overall capability set. Perhaps the best testament to just how
Jaggar (2006), 314. Robeyns, Ingrid (2006). The Capability Approach in Practice. The Journal of Political Philosophy, 14:3, 355. Internal citations excluded. 125 Sen (2005), 158.
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challenging it is to realize such a process and satisfy the relevant practical imperatives is the absence of a framework for doing so in any of Sen’s writings. As Robeyns acknowledges, “he [Sen] has never explained how such a selection could be done, beyond stating in general terms that some democratic process and public reasoning should be involved.”126 In this way, Sen’s resistance to articulate a definite list of capabilities is at once an obvious move given his theoretical commitments, and a problematic hole in his approach. Is the absence of an operational model for the democratic participatory process he espouses an admission of the notion’s practical inefficacy, or a reflection of Sen’s refusal to propose guidelines for a process that he believes must be agent-oriented and people-driven? To answer this question, we must assess whether the potential models for operationalizing this democratic decisionmaking component of CA can function while remaining true to Sen’s foundations. Among the options for operationalizing constructive freedom in Sen’s CA, deliberative participation stands apart as the most promising model. As David Crocker explains, deliberative participation is the process by which “[n]on-elites (sometimes among themselves and sometimes with elites) deliberate together, engage in practical reasoning, and scrutinize proposals and reasons in order to forge agreements on policies for the common good, ones which at least a majority can accept.”127 In regard to the selection and weighting of capabilities, then, such a deliberative process would involve village-wide forums in which non-elites propose and evaluate different capabilities, valuations, and orderings until agreeing upon a given capability-set—perhaps an incomplete set, depending on the desires of the actors—that the majority of community members would reasonably accept. This model of deliberative decision-making shares many affinities with the participatory value construction conceived by Sabina Alkire, a major proponent of CA. As Alkire explains this value
126 127

Robeyns (2006), 356. Crocker, David A. (Nov. 2007). Deliberative Participation in Local Development. Journal of Human Development, 8:3, pp. 433.

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construction in relation to capabilities, “[a]t the national level, and in a well-functioning democratic system the procedures of interest may be closely tied to the formal political processes of democracy…At other levels or in other contexts procedures include indigenous institutions, or ad hoc, short term ‘participation’ in development planning. In either case, the selection and prioritization and distribution of valuable capabilities draws on collective deliberation….”128 If this all sounds a bit too good to be true—too seamlessly connected with Sen’s imperatives for constructive freedom—that’s probably because it is. These notions of deliberative participation and value construction are prescriptive theoretical ideals, and the potential pitfalls they face signal to the theory-practice divide that Sen’s CA stands to generate. One major concern with deliberative participation at the foundational level of an operationalized CA is that the long-standing power imbalances in a given society will merely perpetuate—and in a way legitimate—themselves through this process. As Crocker explains, “[t]o ascribe unconstrained agency, autonomy, or self-determination to groups themselves is to guarantee that the asymmetries will be reproduced when the group decides and acts.”129 In order to prevent such power asymmetries from skewing the selection and weighting of capabilities in favor of those with a monopoly on power and wealth, CA may need to include an external mechanism for checking against such disparities. While this would remedy this particular concern, it might also inject a problematic paternalistic element into the process of constructive valuation. A similarly problematic though markedly different concern with promoting deliberative participation in Sen’s foundational stage is that the model imposes a form of democratic agency that undermines individual autonomy. “If we genuinely embrace Sen’s ideal of agency and deliberative democracy’s ideal of being in charge of one’s own (collective) life,” Crocker asks, “should we not respect a group’s decision to be nonAlkire, Sabina (2006). “Public Debate and Value Construction in Sen’s Approach,” in Kaufman, Alexander, ed. Capabilities Equality: Basic Issues and Problems. London: Routledge. 129 Crocker (2007), 444.

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democratic and even anti-democratic?”130 If this were the case, the very promise of Sen’s CA would be entirely misplaced; if individuals indeed chose to be non-democratic, the most central freedoms to the framing, implementation, and achievement of the objectives that drive Sen’s CA would be jeopardized. Responding to this concern, Crocker advances two reasons why its reach is limited. First, people require certain basic features of democracy to make the decision to reject democratic deliberation and the freedom comprised therein. Because people hold agency to be objectively valuable, it is highly unlikely that—given the opportunity to evaluate different potential forms of governance—individuals will select a form that compromises their agency. Second, proponents of deliberative democracy hold the model to be something that groups have “putative reason freely to accept and modify as they see fit.”131 In short, Crocker seems to be arguing that individuals will almost always opt for democratic modes of governance over non- or anti-democratic ones; should they choose otherwise, we must respect this choice. As with the response to the concern of perpetuating power asymmetries, the responses to the concern of autonomy seem somewhat unconvincing in the context of Sen’s CA. Because most developing countries often suffer from the very dictatorial governing structures and vastly asymmetrical distributions of power that Crocker views as outliers or remediable conditions under more robust democratic systems, they pose a special problem for fostering the deliberative process of value construction that—however optimal in theory—seems rather difficult to facilitate in the context of development. While the challenges to operationalizing Sen’s CA in this dimension by no means render the entire approach impracticable, a revision or reordering of Sen’s complex commitments to freedom may thus be necessary if CA is to remain a viable development
130 131

Crocker (2007), 448. Crocker (2007), 448-9.

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paradigm. However, before concluding that such major theoretical revisions to Sen’s CA are necessary if it is to be operationalized, we turn in Chapters Three and Four to two major models of development—one avowedly capability-based and one much closer to Rawlsian RA—to see just how damaging the theory-practice divide in Sen’s CA is. These assessments ultimately illuminate whether an approach with alternative theoretical foundations might be more capable in practice than CA itself of achieving the freedoms to which Sen is so deeply committed. If the theoretical richness of CA and its heavy commitment to freedom sets standards that are prohibitively difficult to realize at the project level, what does this reveal about the overall viability of the approach as a development paradigm? While operational complications should not render the approach void in an all-or-nothing fashion, the potential theory-practice divide in CA inevitably limits its reach—and forces us to reconsider the role of CA in development.

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“The real wealth of a nation is its people. And the purpose of development is to create an enabling environment for people to enjoy long, healthy and creative lives. This simple but powerful truth is too often forgotten in the pursuit of material and financial wealth.” – Human Development Report 1990132 “The basic purpose of development is to enlarge people’s choices. In principle, these choices can be infinite and can change over time. People often value achievements that do not show up at all, or not immediately, in income or growth figures: greater access to knowledge, better nutrition and health services, more secure livelihoods, security against crime and physical violence, satisfying leisure hours, political and cultural freedoms and a sense of participation in community activities. The objective of development is to create an enabling environment for people to enjoy long, healthy and creative lives.” – Mahbub ul Haq (1934-1998)133 “All development is ultimately about expanding human potential and enlarging human freedom. It is about people developing the capabilities that empower them to make choices and to lead lives that they value.” – Human Development Report 2007-8134

The Human Development (HD) approach is one of the most promising models for
operationalizing Sen’s CA. Unfortunately, in as far as HD fails to fully embrace in practice what it preaches in theory, it also poses one of the gravest threats to the overall efficacy of CA as a development paradigm. While there is some controversy about the degree to which HD is actually a capabilities-based approach, the critical arguments on this point are more semantic than substantive. After establishing the theoretical linkage between HD and CA, our assessment thus moves to the more compelling—and indeed more controversial—side of HD: its practical manifestation in the United Nations Development Program’s (UNDP) Human Development Reports (HDRs) and Human Development Index (HDI), which stand together as the cornerstone of UNDP development strategies and assessments. Since their inception in 1990, the HDR and HDI have considerably expanded the depth and breadth of development discourse, and thus have achieved their original purpose of shifting “the focus of development economics from national income accounting to

United Nations Development Program (1990). Human Development Report 1990. New York: Oxford University Press. Haq, Mahbub ul (1995a). Reflections on Human Development. New York: Oxford University Press, 14. 134 United Nations Development Program (2007). Human Development Report 2007/2008; Fighting Climate Change: Human solidarity in a divided world. New York: Oxford University Press, 16.
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people centered policies.”135 Beyond this shift in discourse, however, the success of the HDR and HDI remains a subject of considerable debate. Some scholars argue that the HDI generates a dangerously incomplete account of individual well-being and corresponding levels of development while leaving out fundamental aspects of human life.136 Others, more interested in the continuing debate over resource- versus capability-based approaches to development, argue that the HDR and HDI represent a shallow expansion of traditional GDP-based assessment mechanisms rather than a true departure from them, and that the purported objectives of HD would in fact be better achieved by a rich resourcist approach.137 Though compelling in their own right, these charges miss the central failing of the HDR and HDI and, more broadly, HD as a development paradigm: in working to achieve its stated objective of deepening human freedom, HD utilizes top-down elite planning and implementation processes, and thus calls into question its commitment in practice to its theoretical principles and, even more damaging, the capacity of these principles to stand together as the basis for a viable approach to development. What are the implications of this disconnect between HD in theory and practice? If a rich resourcist approach can achieve the same results as HDR without manifesting a similar theory-practice disconnect, might this not be better? If it were possible to effectively implement participatory processes at all levels of the HDR, would the overall product and process be improved? What is lost if the HDR remains the same; what is lost if it becomes truly participatory—truly committed to freedom as its guiding principle? In answering these questions, we shed light on the broader question at the heart of our enterprise, drawing out
Ibid, cited in Fukuda-Parr, Sakiko (2003). The Human Development Paradigm: Operationalizing Sen’s Ideas on Capabilities. Feminist Economics, 9(2-3): 302. 136 See Ranis, G., Stewart, F., and Samman, E. (Nov. 2006). Human Development: Beyond the Human Development Index. Journal of Human Development, 7, 3: 323-358. 137 See Pogge (2002). This is an important criticism, and will be explored—however briefly—in subsequent sections, as the debate over the HDI highlights both the inevitable limitations of any index and the practical limitations of trying to measure in any quantifiable way the depth of higher-order individual freedom and achievement.

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the potentials and limitations of capability-based development paradigms, and ultimately determining whether CA is in fact more defensible than RA as a basis for development.

The publication of the first HDR in 1990—under the auspices of UNDP and with the inspired leadership of the late Pakistani economist Mahbub ul Haq—signaled a broad acceptance of HD by leading development economists and institutions as a contender against prevailing Neoliberal paradigms. As the HDRs have been elaborated and their reach expanded over the past two decades, so too has the concept at their core, lending credence to the theoretical principles on which HD is based. To be sure, the concept of HD existed long before the UNDP began commissioning the annual reports. As Haq candidly recognizes in Reflections on Human Development,138 HD shares conceptual roots with Aristotelian notions of human good and flourishing, the second formulation of Kant’s categorical imperative,139 and Adam Smith’s insistence on including more than mere numbers in poverty assessment140—the very roots that Sen has long recognized as foundational to his CA.141 Not surprisingly, the core premise behind HD is nearly identical to that in Sen’s CA: “Human beings are the real end of all activities, and development must be centered on enhancing their achievements, freedoms, and capabilities. It is the lives they lead that is of intrinsic importance, not the commodities or income they happen to possess.”142 Such overlap

Haq, Mahbub ul (1995a). Reflections on Human Development. New York: Oxford University Press, 13. Kant, Immanuel (1785), Grounding for the Metaphysics of Morals: “Act in such a way that you treat humanity, whether in your own person or in the person of any other, always at the same time as an end and never merely as a means.” 140 Here Haq invokes the passage from The Wealth of Nations (1776) in which Smith speaks of the importance of enabling individuals to mix freely with others without being ‘ashamed to appear in publick’” (13). Sen too draws on this concept, demonstrating just one explicit connection between the two approaches (e.g., Sen 2000, 71.) 141 Sen (1999), 24-5. 142 Anand, S. and Sen, A. (1994). Human Development Index: Methodology and Measurement in Haq, M. and Kaul, I., eds. (July 1994). Human Development Report Office Occasional Papers. New York: Human Development Report Office. While it may seem cheap to demonstrate a connection between HD and CA by citing a work co-authored by Sen, the document is an in-house articulation of HD and its various practical applications. If anything, the acceptance by the HDR Office of Sen’s language only substantiates the connection.
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permeates the two approaches throughout, suggesting that HD truly is an elaboration of CA rather than a separate approach. Even more indicative of this connection is Sen’s personal involvement in developing HD. While the contributions of the other esteemed development economists143 that Haq assembled to help frame HD came in the form of debating and refining concepts, Sen’s contributions came in the form of articulating these foundational concepts years earlier. This is not to suggest that Haq adopted Sen’s CA wholesale; the two approaches are distinct in as far as CA remains, at heart, a theoretical paradigm and HD a much more policy-focused one. This difference is perhaps best seen in the primacy Haq placed on the evaluative aspect of freedom over its agency aspect, which is—we have seen—of equal if not greater importance in Sen’s CA. Speaking to this point, however, Sen notes that “[e]ven though Mahbub’s primary focus was on the evaluative aspect of the human development approach… he also had deep interest in the agency aspect. Even as he was hammering home the need to judge progress differently, Mahbub was also scrutinizing the ways and means of enhancing…the ‘life chances’ that people enjoy in the miserable world in which we live.”144 This commitment to agency is made clear in Haq’s many writings as well as in the HDRs themselves, and has only become more potent in the evolution of the approach. As such, while the disparate emphasis on the evaluative and agency aspects in HD may explain the departure of HD in practice from what CA prescribes, it cannot adequately explain away—without relying on purely practical reasons—the theory-practice disconnect in HD. To see this more clearly, we consider the principles of HD articulated by Haq to ensure that our assessment rests on a fair construal of the approach.

Aside from Sen, Haq’s original ‘team’ included Paul Streeten, Frances Stewart, Gustav Ranis, Meghnad Desai, Keith Griffin, Wouter Tims, Jim Grant, Richard Jolly, Hans Singer and Dragoslav Avramovic, among others. Haq (1995). 144 Sen, A (2003). “Foreward” in Fukuda-Parr, Sakiko & Kumar, A.K.S., eds. Readings in Human Development. New York: Oxford University Press, viii.

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HD consists of four essential components: equity, sustainability, productivity and empowerment. According to Haq, “[e]quity should be understood as equity in opportunities, not necessarily in results”; thus, HD “values life because of its built-in assumption that all individuals must be enabled to develop their human capabilities to the fullest and to put those capabilities to the best use in all areas of their lives.” 145 In turn, sustainability requires “that everyone should have equal access to development opportunities—now and in the future.”146 To foster effective use of these equitably distributed and sustainable opportunities, HD holds productivity as “an essential part of the human development paradigm … [requiring] investments in people and an enabling macroeconomic environment for them to achieve their maximum potential.”147 Thus, while economic development is not the focal point of HD, it remains a key component of the approach. Finally, and most important for our assessment, HD focuses “on development by the people, who must participate in the activities, events and processes that shape their lives”; the focus on empowerment “embraces all choices—particularly political, social and cultural—” that people have reason to value.148 Of the four elements articulated above, empowerment is HD’s most enriching and most distinguishing feature. In engaging individuals as aid participants and not merely aid recipients, HD commits to facilitating human freedom in ways that competing paradigms do not. As Sakiko Fukuda-Parr explains, “[p]eople are not simply beneficiaries of economic and social progress in a society, but are active agents of change.”149 Even more important, the connection between empowerment and the emphasis on valuing a whole range of choices a person might enjoy, rather than simply economic ones, makes HD a much more perceptive
Haq (1995a), 17. Haq (1995a), 19. 147 Ibid. 148 Ibid. 149 Fukuda-Parr (2003), 308.
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tool for “capturing the complexity of human life”—and, in turn, for offering effective policy responses to “the many concerns people have and the many cultural, economic, social and political difference in peoples lives throughout the world.”150 The importance of empowerment in HD is reinforced by the basic definition of HD advanced in the first HDR: “Human Development is a process of enlarging people’s choices…concerned not only with basic needs satisfaction but also with human development as a participatory and dynamic process.”151 Equity, sustainability, and productivity matter, but the substance of the approach is in its empowering thrust. How deep is this empowerment component? At the theoretical level, the commitment of HD to empowerment and choice as fundamentally valuable seems as central as Sen’s in CA. Consider this statement on the objectives of HD taken from the website of the Human Development Report Office: The goal is human freedom. And in pursuing capabilities and realizing rights, this freedom is vital. People must be free to exercise their choices and to participate in decision-making that affects their lives. Human development and human rights are mutually reinforcing, helping to secure the well-being and dignity of all people, building self-respect and the respect of others.152 Not only is HD people-centered—it is, at least in spirit, people-driven. As in CA, human freedom is the goal of development under HD because it enables individuals to pursue functionings they have reason to value and because it fosters participation, which is itself of great value both for intrinsic and instrumental reasons. To be sure, the commitment to freedom and empowerment was initially of secondary importance within the HD framework relative to the three capabilities articulated in 1990 as most critical: “to lead a long and healthy

United Nations Development Program (1990). Human Development Report 1990. New York: Oxford University Press, 10, 11. United Nations Development Program (1990). Human Development Report 1990. New York: Oxford University Press, 10. Emphasis added. 152 UNDP Human Development Report Office website. Accessed on 4 Jan. 2008, at:
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life, to be educated and to have a decent standard of living.”153 But the theory has evolved to realize the essential value of empowerment, and now includes the capability “to participate in the life of the community” among “the most basic capabilities for human development.”154 And while this capability of participation can be interpreted in myriad ways (e.g. as participation in the political, economic, and social ‘life’ of one’s community), it only seems reasonable that this participatory element should—as in CA—manifest itself in the HDR and HDI assessment and recommendation process itself. The fact that this process currently is not a component of ‘the life of the community’ for individuals living in poverty reflects a top-down decision to maintain control of the process, rather than some incompatibility between the process and impoverished communities. As the HDR Reporting Office openly recognizes, “HDR policy proposals have helped shape poverty reduction strategy papers…steer national programmes, policy advice, aid coordination and resource mobilization efforts.”155 In this way, the determination of what aspects of human development truly matter to the poor is a critical aspect of the life of the community—and, more important, represents a decision-making process that clearly affects their lives. As with the constructive aspect of Sen’s CA, HD’s commitment to empowering individuals to participate in the life of the community thus requires at least some degree of participation at this foundational level. And if such participation is lacking, the espousal of freedom and empowerment by HD seems less compelling, and suggests that these aspects of human development are less critical than HD rhetoric implies. It is here that we see the critical departure between HD and CA. In exploring this disconnect, we aim to discover whether it

United Nations Development Program (1990). Human Development Report 1990. New York: Oxford University Press, 10. United Nations Development Program (2001). Human Development Report 2001; Making new technologies work for human development. New York: Oxford University Press, 23. 155 United Nations Development Program. “Ideas, Innovation, Impact; How Human Development Reports Influence Change.” Accessed on 1 March 2008 at:
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results from practical barriers to operationalizing CA, from the particular design of the HDR and HDI, or from something else.

Assessing the strength of HD five years after the publication of the first HDR, Haq characterized the approach as follows: “the human development paradigm is the most holistic development model that exists today. It embraces every development issue, including economic growth, social investment, people’s empowerment, provision of basic needs and social safety nets, political and cultural freedoms and all other aspects of people’s lives. It is neither narrowly technocratic nor overly philosophical. It is a practical reflection of life itself.”156 All of this is well-taken; based on our foregoing discussion, it seems clear that HD is in fact the most holistic development model in existence today, as it represents the clearest practical extension of CA. Unfortunately, HD exhibits troublingly elite-driven, top-down processes in the most foundational dimensions—namely, the selection of themes and indices for assessment and the subsequent policy-directives that the HDR and HDI yield, which greatly compromises the depth of empowerment and participation fostered by the approach. To determine the cause and implications of this theory-practice disconnect, we must illuminate the participatory mechanisms that are in place and assess their respective strength. As we have already established, the HDR and HDI are practical embodiments of HD. As such, our standard of assessing these two projects is necessarily framed by the principles of HD articulated by Haq, Sen, and others in both the HDRs and secondary literature on the approach. Of the HDR and HDI, the HDI has been the target of significantly greater criticism in the realm of development economics. As Fukuda-Parr and A.K. Shiva Kumar note in Readings in Human Development, “[e]veryone agrees the index is

Haq (1995a), 23.

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neither perfect nor comprehensive, and Haq himself said the HDI “is of the same level of vulgarity as the GNP.””157 In examining the basic structure of the index, we see both how helpful this vulgar index can be for practical purposes and how theoretically problematic it can be for HD and CA at large. The HDI emerged in conjunction with the HDR, and provides the core quantitative component of the HD paradigm. When constructing the index, the architects of the HDI had several principles in mind: the index would measure the basic HD principle of enlarging people’s choices; it would include only a few variables in the interest of simplicity; it would be a composite rather than a collection of separate indices; it would measure both social and economic choices;158 its coverage and methodology would remain flexible; and it would not be sidelined due to mere limitations in data.159 The resulting index consisted of three core components: longevity, knowledge, and command over resources needed for a decent standard of living, indicated respectively by life expectancy at birth, literacy rates, and adjusted income.160 As the result of continuous efforts to refine and expand the measure over the years, the index now includes three additional components: sustainability, personal security, and gender equality.161 Unlike GDP or other components of a resourcist index, these six indicators each capture different freedoms. And yet, saddled with data limitations and thus forced to leave out other equally if not more important factors, the HDI remains an incomplete metric for assessing HD and the freedoms in which it consists.
Fukuda-Parr, Sakiko & Kumar, A.K.S. (2003). “Introduction” in Fukuda-Parr, Sakiko & Kumar, A.K.S., eds. Readings in Human Development. New York: Oxford University Press, xxv. 158 In this way, the HDI has clear advantages over GNP/GDP-style indices in providing an accurate portrait of human development. Because our focus is less on the merits of the HDI over traditional neoliberal indices than on the implications of HDI as a capabilities metric, we need not discuss these relative merits here. Suffice it to say that, even on a very rich resourcist account (such as the one defended by Pogge, for instance), the HDI is closer to being comprehensive because it goes beyond the economic to include the social—and, in a more limited degree, political and other factors. 159 Haq, Mahbub ul (1995b). “The Birth of the Human Development Index” in Fukuda-Parr, Sakiko & Kumar, A.K.S., eds. Readings in Human Development. New York: Oxford University Press, 127-8. 160 For an in-depth discussion of these themes and indicators, see United Nations Development Program (1990). Human Development Report 1990. New York: Oxford University Press. AND Anand, S. and Sen, A. (1994). Human Development Index: Methodology and Measurement in Haq, M. and Kaul, I., eds. (July 1994). Human Development Report Office Occasional Papers. New York: Human Development Report Office, esp. pp. 2-7. 161 United Nations Development Program (2007). Human Development Report 2007/2008; Fighting Climate Change: Human solidarity in a divided world. New York: Oxford University Press.

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The HDI is ineluctably constrained in what it can capture and in the degree to which it can account for nuanced differences in individual and national levels of development. As HDR 1990 states, the HDI “captures a few of people’s choices and leaves out many that people may value highly – economic, social and political freedoms, and protection against violence, insecurity and discrimination, to name a few.”162 While any index measuring a quality as multi-faceted and nebulous as human development or well-being will suffer similar constraints, and the failure to include certain factors is not grounds for discounting the achievements of the index altogether, the fact that the HDI is so avowedly capabilitiesbased—and that HD promises to account for the range of choices individuals face, not merely economic ones—makes the selectivity of capabilities included in the index problematic. To be sure, the arguments advanced by Haq, Sen, Fukuda-Parr and others regarding simplicity and workability of the index help explain its perceived flaws. Sen puts it best when he says of the HDI and similar aggregative indices, “[t]hese are useful indicators in rough and ready work, but the real merit of the human development approach lies in the plural attention it brings to bear on development evaluation, not in the aggregative measures it presents as an aid to digestion of diverse statistics.”163 To that end, “[t]he usefulness of the HDI is dependent on understanding its purpose and limits. It is aimed at broadening the informational narrowness of the GNP or GDP [Gross Domestic Product]. This it does, but it cannot capture the breadth of the human development approach in general. No one number can, no matter how much we try to pack into that number.”164 This is all well and good. But even if we exempt the index from criticism for what it leaves out, we find several flaws with the process by which the indicators and the corresponding annual HDR themes are

United Nations Development Program (1990). Human Development Report 1990. New York: Oxford University Press. Sen, Amartya (2000). A Decade of Human Development. Journal of Human Development, 1:1, pp. 22. 164 Sen, Amartya (2006). “The Human Development Index”, in D.A. Clark, ed., The Elgar Companion to Development Studies. Cited in McNeill, Desmond (Mar. 2007). ‘Human Development’: The Power of the Idea. Journal of Human Development, 8:1, 16.
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selected and evaluated, and it is these flaws that serve to undermine the broader efficacy of HD as a development paradigm. A TOP-DOWN APPROACH TO EMPOWERING THE GLOBAL POOR? In keeping with the spirit of empowerment and participation as core values in HD, the most important questions to ask regarding the selection and measurement of HDI components are: (a) at what level—if at all—are stakeholders engaged in framing and assessing the various indicators included in the HDI; and (b) to what extent do the indicators themselves capture the depth of empowerment and participation individuals enjoy in the ‘life of the community’? Similarly, in considering the themes that guide the HDRs from year to year, we must ask: (a) is the theme selection process genuinely participatory, or does it remain an elite-driven process; and (b) how much do these themes relate to concerns of empowerment and participation? While the characterization may seem a bit crude, we can understand these two lines of questioning (a) and (b) as roughly corresponding to the agency and evaluative aspects of HD. With both the HDI indicators and the HDR themes, it seems that the degree of participation in the agency aspect is very low, save for the seemingly symbolic gestures of stakeholder ‘consultations’ that occur during the preparatory stage of the reports.165 Even more troubling, the degree to which individuals’ participatory capabilities figure consistently in the evaluative aspect via indicators and themes seems at best tangential, and at worst completely lacking. PARTICIPATION AND AGENCY In regard to the agency aspect of the HDR and HDI, HD is declaredly concerned with “the role of human agency for changing policy, social commitment, and norms that

UNDP Human Development Report Office website. “The HDR Timeline; Key steps in the human development process”. Accessed on 4 Jan. 2008, at:

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require collective action, … [and] with human rights.”166 As discussed above, HD is also committed to empowering individuals to participate in the life of their community, which entails not just the exercise of freedoms that UNDP economists deem valuable in this community, but also the exercise of free agency to influence which freedoms are chosen as directly valuable. Given this, HD should promote agency in at least some capacity at all levels— constructive, instrumental, and evaluative—and not merely at the third level, after elite Western development institutions have determined the spheres within which individual agency should rightfully be enjoyed and formed policy recommendations for achieving this. It seems counterintuitive to base a development paradigm on a commitment to human freedom and agency but to only live by those notions in phases of implementation that come after the broad framework has been articulated. As discussed above,167 Haq emphasized the evaluative aspect over agency, which may explain why seemingly so little attention is paid to the agency aspect at the preliminary phases of operationalizing HD. But the fact that the HDR office so openly utilizes a primarily top-down method in its construction and implementation processes means one of two things: either (i) the HD paradigm’s commitment to agency is less thoroughgoing than its rhetoric suggests, or (ii) the value of agency is purely restrained the evaluative component of HD that values freedoms directly. To see which is the case, we consider our two lines of questioning in more detail. The selection and weighting of indicators in the HDI has an immense impact on the assessment generated by the index. As Gustav Ranis et al recognize, “[a]ny list of categories is inevitably both subjective and ethnocentric both with respect to the broad categories and, even more, to the weight accorded to each.”168 Echoing this sentiment, Sen asserts: “what

Fukuda-Parr (2003), 308. See note 144 supra and accompanying text. 168 Ranis, G., Stewart, F., and Samman, E. (Nov. 2006). Human Development: Beyond the Human Development Index. Journal of Human Development, 7, 3: 329.
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weights may emerge is ultimately a matter for social choice, not to be taken over by some kind of a mechanical reading of an apparent ‘truth’.”169 As with the constructive aspect of his CA, Sen’s insistence that the weighting of HDI indicators result from social choice rather than some objective formula that purports to capture a universal understanding of human freedom and development reflects a deep commitment to freedom and agency in HD beyond the evaluative aspect. Indeed, the selected categories and their relative weights should be the product of social choice—providing, as we have established, that empowerment and ownership are core aspects of HD—but this is hardly the case in the HDI. The dimensions currently comprising the index—longevity, knowledge, command over resources needed for a decent standard of living, sustainability, personal security, and gender equality170—were all selected by development economists based on a set of conditions relating to the data that they deemed critical. To be selected, a dimension must have corresponding data that is: internationally comparable, globally available, of reasonable quality, and policy relevant;171 additionally, dimensions must be deemed representative of basic capabilities of universal value to individual well-being. Though the conditions relating to data are pragmatic and uncontroversial, the latter condition is more problematic when thinking about the question of agency. Without getting into the philosophical question of universal values, we can see that the HDI indicators represent Western understandings of well-being rather than a truly universal conception, as they are the product of a paternalistic rather than participatory
Sen (2000), 21. In its current form, the HDI measures these six dimension broadly using the following indicators. Longevity: commitment to health— resources, access and services; water, sanitation and nutritional status; inequalities in maternal and child health; leading global health crises and risks; survival—progress and setbacks. Knowledge: commitment to education—public spending; literacy and enrolment; technology—diffusion and creation. Access to resources needed for decent standard of living: economic performance; inequality in income or expenditure; structure of trade; OECD-DAC country expenditures on aid; flows of aid, private capital and debt; priorities in public spending; unemployment in OECD countries; unemployment and informal sector work in non-OECD countries. Sustainability: energy and the environment; energy sources; carbon dioxide emissions and stocks; status of major international environmental treaties. Personal security: Refugees and armaments; crime and justice. Gender equality: gender-related development index; gender empowerment measure; gender inequality in education; gender inequality in economic activity; gender, work and time allocation; women’s political participation. UNDP (2007). Human Development Report 2007/2008; Fighting Climate Change: Human solidarity in a divided world. New York: Oxford University Press. 171 Raworth, K. and Stewart, D. (2002). “Critiques of the Human Development Index: A Review” in Fukuda-Parr, Sakiko & Kumar, A.K.S., eds. Readings in Human Development. New York: Oxford University Press, 165-6.
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selection process. Even if the six core dimension are objectively valuable to all humans, the fact that they have been selected and elaborated from the top-down compromises their value as components of a capabilities-based development paradigm. We see a similarly problematic top-down selection process in the annual themes and production of the HDRs, though this process is more ambitious than the HDI construction and calculation in its attempts to engage and empower stakeholders. According to the HDR website, “key stakeholders” are engaged in the first two procedural stages; in the Preparatory Stage, stakeholders are involved in brainstorming during the “consultative” Theme Selection process, which also includes a review of previous HDRs’ impact and in-house UNDP & wider UN discussions; in the Research and Writing Stage, stakeholders are presented with the first draft of the report to “discuss content, check facts, and test messages”.172 While it would be wonderful if these engagement efforts actually enabled stakeholders to determine the focus of the reports, a review of the themes since the first HDR suggests that the emphasis on the evaluative rather than agency aspect is indeed quite heavy in HD. As the HDR office states, the annual themes are selected in the interest of “adding to the understanding of the paradigm and expanding its use and reference in international forums.”173 Consider the themes explored to-date: concepts and measurements of development; national and international strategies for development; international trade; citizens’ participation in development; human security; gender inequality; economic growth, poverty; consumption; globalization; human rights; new technologies; deepening democracy; the Millennium Development Goals; cultural liberty; aid, trade and security; the global water crisis; and climate change.174 As with the core dimensions of the HDI, these themes all capture individual freedoms in one way or another. But the fact remains that

UNDP Human Development Report Office website. “The HDR Timeline; Key steps in the human development process”. Accessed on 4 Jan. 2008, at: 173 Ibid. 174 Ibid. Themes are listed in chronological order, beginning with the 1990 HDR and ending with the most recently published (2007/8).

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these themes reflect trends in Western values—what we care about and think the poor need— rather than necessarily what matters to them and what they value most highly here and now. HDR themes come and go, but the actual components of human development that they focus briefly on span individuals’ entire lifetimes. As Desmond McNeil observes, the need for constant innovation in the HDRs may cheapen the HD concept,175 forcing emphasis to pass from critical topics that merit several years of attention but, for lack of data (and thus exclusion from the HDI) or lack of long-term politicization, fall by the wayside after their year in the sun. Even if it might stunt the evolution of the HD concept slightly, an enriched commitment to enhancing the agency of the poor in voicing their wants and needs—in identifying the capabilities that matter most to them and to which they want their governments and the international community to direct development efforts—would bring the practical manifestation of HD closer to its theoretical ideal. Whereas the HDI doesn’t purport to have a robust consultative agency aspect, the HDRs do; in as far as this agency aspect falls short of genuine and thoroughgoing participation, the agency failings of the HDR are actually more detrimental to HD as a whole than those of the HDI. PARTICIPATION AND EVALUATION If the HDI and HDR fail to adequately foster agency among stakeholders in the process of evaluating and promoting HD, perhaps they make up for this failure in the substantive focus of their respective evaluative aspects. A case can indeed be made that the true thrust of HD is its capacity to assess and propose policy prescriptions for deficits in individual freedom—including especially individual empowerment and participation in the ‘life of the community’ and the ‘decision-making that affects their lives’. To that end, the degree to which the HDI and HDRs fulfill the evaluative aspect of capability expansion in


McNeil (Mar. 2007), 14.

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regard to participation and empowerment hinges on how well the given dimensions, indicators, and themes capture the depth of political, social, and economic agency enjoyed by individuals. To what extent do the HDI indicators capture the depth of individual empowerment and participation? As noted earlier, HD has evolved to include the capability to participate in the life of the community as basic,176 and thus the expanded form of the HDI as it now stands should pay considerable attention to this issue. Of the six HDI dimensions, however, only one—gender equality—focuses explicitly on individual participation and empowerment. In truth, the six dimensions relate in varying degrees to these capabilities, as individuals need to succeed in each of these areas in order to meaningfully participate in their communities. A disease-stricken mother in rural Uganda with restricted access to basic means and living in an area plagued by rebel infighting likely views political participation or free-market access as issues of secondary importance; and, even if she wanted to participate despite these adverse conditions, her capacity to do so would be limited given the circumstances. Nevertheless, individual empowerment is one of the strongest channels through which such life challenges can be eliminated, and so participation should be treated as a basic-level capability. While the gender equality dimension signals a step in the right direction, it hardly provides a holistic understanding of the global status of individual social, political and economic empowerment. As Fukuda-Parr observes, the absence of indicators for political freedoms and participation is one of two initial design flaws that “continue to haunt the concept” behind the HDI.177 Why, then, is there no explicit empowerment or participation dimension? For better or worse, absence of such a dimension in the HDI seems the dual result of restrictions in the

See note 155 supra and accompanying text. Fukuda-Parr (2002). “Rescuing the Human Development Concept from the HDI: Reflections on a New Agenda” in Fukuda-Parr, Sakiko & Kumar, A.K.S., eds. Readings in Human Development. New York: Oxford University Press, 117. Fukuda-Parr identifies “the simplification of a complex idea” as the other initial flaw in the design of the HDI.
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relevant data and the political perception of empowerment—primarily in the form of political freedom—as too hot an issue to gain wide-scale support from UN member states. These complications are best seen in the examples of the Human Freedom Index (HFI) and Political Freedom Index (PFI)—published in HDR 1991 and 1992, respectively—that each failed to become permanent components of the HDI. The primary objective of these indices was to fill the gap in the HDI for assessing political, social, and economic empowerment and participation, conceived broadly as human freedom. Drawing on the World Human Rights Guide (also known as the Humana index) developed by Charles Humana, the HFI aimed to assess the scope of human freedom using a scale of 0-40, where a nation earned 1 point for each of the 40 ‘freedoms’ enjoyed by its citizens.178 In a similar fashion, the PFI aimed to assess the status of human rights “according to generally accepted concepts and values” using a composite index measuring five dimensions: personal security, rule of law, freedom of expression, political participation, and equality of opportunity.179 Though both indices signaled large strides in the right direction, the HFI and PFI faced insurmountable constraints in data—primarily because they were attempting to quantify an inherently qualitative dimensions—and considerable resistance by UN member states concerned that the inclusion of a freedom or participation dimension would jeopardize their overall HDI ratings.180 As Human Development Report 2000; Human rights and human development explains, because the HFI and PFI “were based on qualitative judgments, not quantifiable empirical data…[they] did not empower readers to understand the judgments…and the

For a complete listing of these freedoms and an elaboration of the concept behind the HFI, see “Boz 1.2: The human freedom index” in United Nations Development Program (1991). Human Development Report 1991. New York; Oxford University Press, 30. 179 United Nations Development Program (1992). Human Development Report 1992. New York; Oxford University Press. See especially Ch. 2, “Political freedom and human development,” pp. 26-33. 180 Raworth, K. and Stewart, D. (2002). “Critiques of the Human Development Index: A Review” in Fukuda-Parr, Sakiko & Kumar, A.K.S., eds. Readings in Human Development. New York: Oxford University Press, 169.

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assessments could not be translated into policy advocacy”181 for the expansion of human rights and freedoms. In this way, the HFI and PFI proved admirable in aspiration but inadequate in achievement—the spirit was willing, but the flesh was weak. If the persistent difficulty of incorporating dimensions of freedom and human rights into the HDI stems from the irreducibly qualitative nature of these dimensions, perhaps the thematic narrative explorations of the HDRs present a better forum for such assessments. As Fukuda-Parr points out, “[a]ll of the Human Development Reports have reflected issues related to individual and collective action,” through which human beings can function as active agents of change, and this is certainly an encouraging trend.182 Of the 18 global reports issued since 1990, four have focused explicitly on matters relating to freedom, participation, and empowerment, and these provide the best basis for assessing the evaluative capacity of the HDRs in these dimensions. Human Development Report 1993; People’s Participation in Human Development insists that all social, political, and economic institutions and actions should be judged exclusively on how well they meet “the genuine aspirations of the people.”183 By adjusting our understandings of the various HD dimensions—from human security and global governance to sustainability and market efficiency—to “accommodate the rise of people’s aspirations and the steady decline of the nation-state,”184 HDR 1993 demonstrates just how focal participation is in development. Extending this notion of people-centered, participatory development, HDR 1995: Gender and Human Development offers a vision of a new world order built on equality of opportunity for both women and men that would foster an “enabling environment for the full flowering of the productive and

United Nations Development Program (2000). Human Development Report 2000; Human rights and human development. New York; Oxford University Press, Box 5.2, pp. 91. 182 Fukuda-Parr (2002). “Rescuing the Human Development Concept from the HDI: Reflections on a New Agenda” in Fukuda-Parr, Sakiko & Kumar, A.K.S., eds. Readings in Human Development. New York: Oxford University Press, 120. 183 United Nations Development Program (1993). Human Development Report 1993. New York: Oxford University Press. 184 Ibid.

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creative potential of both the sexes.”185 Only by putting both men and women “clearly at the center of all development processes,” the report insists, “can human development become fully engaged.”186 Whereas HDR 1995 explores the broad need for equality in gender empowerment, HDR 2000: Human Rights and Human Development explores the intricate and symbiotic relationship between rights and development, with an eye to the politico-legal institutions necessary for individuals to enjoy full-scale human development in all aspects. To secure human rights and thereby enrich HD for all, the report advocates a seven-sided approach that provides for: strengthening norms, institutions, legal frameworks and the economic environment toward securing human freedoms; inclusive democracy; poverty eradication; global justice; using information and statistics to mobilize policy and behavioral change regarding rights; engaging all major groups in a given society; and ensuring stronger, longterm international action.187 It is no coincidence that these various components are closely related to the major themes seen in both previous reports and in the broader framework of HD itself. The important shift here in HDR 2000 is the bold and persistent recognition that all of these objectives are inextricably bound up with the expansion of human freedom—itself linked critically to the expansion of human rights. Elaborating on the need for institutional mechanisms for ensuring equality in access to human rights and freedom and fostering genuine participation, HDR 2002: Deepening Democracy in a Fragmented World offers a concrete extension of the notions at the heart of the three reports explored so far. If democratic participation was valued in earlier reports for primarily instrumental reasons, HDR 2002 represents a major departure in recognizing that

United Nations Development Program (1995). Human Development Report 1995. New York: Oxford University Press. Ibid. Emphasis added. 187 United Nations Development Program (2000). Human Development Report 2000; Human rights and human development. New York: Oxford University Press, 26-32.
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“democratic participation is a critical end of human development, not just a means of achieving it.”188 The gravity of this move cannot be overemphasized. While the forum for such democratic participation seems here to be individuals’ communities rather than a more global arena, the fact remains that local-level democratic participation operates on several levels and demands quite a bit from any development project avowedly committed to it. In recognizing the intrinsic value of democratic participation, HD commits to valuing freedom and agency not merely as its central means but also a major end. As with Sen’s CA, this more complex commitment to freedom comes with more stringent standards that the project must itself satisfy at the foundational, instrumental, and direct levels. HDR 2000 states: “[p]olitics matter for human development because people everywhere want to be free to determine their destinies, express their views and participate in the decisions that shape their lives. These capabilities are just as important for human development—for expanding people’s choices—as being able to read or enjoy good health.”189 Here, then, is the rub between HD theory and practice. If the approach maintained only a secondary commitment to freedom and participation—kept these capabilities relegated to instrumental status—it’s obligation to promote these capabilities would be significantly softer. But by recognizing the essence of development as freedom, HD significantly raises its own stakes. To be sure, this is largely a positive shift. The commitment of each subsequent HDR to freedom and participation as intrinsically valuable sends a message to the world that expansions in life expectancy, growth in literacy rates, and command over basic resources for a decent standard of living simply aren’t sufficient to constitute adequate human development. In this way, the HDRs succeed where the HDI fails: establishing a framework for evaluating the depth of participation, empowerment, and
United Nations Development Program (2002). Human Development Report 2002; Deepening Democracy in a fragmented world. New York: Oxford University Press, 5. 189 United Nations Development Program (2002), 15. Emphasis added.

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freedom enjoyed by individuals across the globe. And while the commitment of the HDRs to freedom from year to year may remain more peripheral than focal—themes change and attention moves from the nebulous notion of freedom to more easily evaluated concepts— the HDRs constitute a major achievement for the HD approach. Unfortunately, this achievement remains marred by the persistent inconsistency between the purported commitment of HD to freedom and its practical failings to promote such freedom in the areas where it matters most. In the final section of this chapter, we explore the impact of HD’s commitment to freedom on the broader efficacy of the paradigm. WHAT VALUE HUMAN DEVELOPMENT? In 1995, Haq asserted that “[w]hat has made the Human Development Report an invaluable addition to the global policy dialogue is its intellectual independence and its professional integrity—its courage more than its analysis.”190 In many ways, our foregoing assessment of the theoretical and practical evolution of HD since 1990 confirms Haq’s sentiment. In exploring just how complex and potentially influential the approach is as a development paradigm, we also see the critical limitations encountered and in many ways self-imposed by HD. What, then, is the ultimate value of HD as an operational extension of Sen’s CA? Taken as a whole, HD offers a compelling mix of philosophical principles that are firm yet flexible—primarily because they remain somewhat imprecise when translated from theory to practice. Many consider this a great asset of the approach; as Sen asserts, “the very lack of a general theory allows an openness that is important for this kind of work.”191 Though the point is well taken, Sen seems to overstate the generality of HD. As we have seen, the approach in its most elaborate form has well-defined and complex principles. The

190 191

Haq (1995a), 43. Sen (2000), 22.

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fact that these principles remain nebulous in their evaluative applications cannot construe away the theoretical richness behind them. Aside from the technical problems that limit the HDI’s reach, it is the disconnect between HD theory—especially as it relates to freedom, participation, and empowerment—and the practical depth of these dimensions in both the agency and evaluative aspects of the approach that undermine its overall strength. Given the residual impact on HD of its commitment to freedom as instrumentally and intrinsically valuable, the question arises whether a similarly structured approach with alternative premises might be better suited to assessing and facilitating human freedoms. If a rich resourcist approach can achieve the same results as HDR without manifesting a similarly problematic theory-practice gap, might this not be better? As discussed in Chapter One, Pogge argues convincingly that a rich resourcist approach can achieve many of the same ends as HD or similarly rich capabilities-based approaches. If we stipulate that this is in fact the case—that the critical dimensions and indicators comprising HD can be captured by a resourcist framework—then the answer to our question seems clearly positive. Unhampered by the need to attend to freedom and participation at all levels of development, such an approach might prove more successful in promoting access to core human freedoms. All of this of course rests on the assumption that top-down conceptualizing and planning may actually prove better at empowering individuals and promoting participation than bottom-up processes do in the long run. And in many ways this is true. If we isolate for a moment the theoretical requirements of the freedom/agency commitment in HD and simply look at the achievements to-date of the HDR and HDI in evaluating and promoting empowerment and participation—if only by making them more widely recognized priorities in development and national-level policy agendas—the top-down approach looks promising. There is indeed a sense in which the poorest of the poor are too preoccupied with matters of Human Development 86

daily survival to spend time worrying about their capabilities to participate in decisionmaking or have genuine access to human rights. If Western development economists can determine effective ways to promote participation without letting the paternalistic aspect of their assessments and planning creep in at the project level, is anything lost? On our rich construal of CA and HD, there certainly would be. But if a development paradigm has license to promote freedoms in the most efficient and effective way rather than the most theoretically defensible one, the results may prove more worthwhile. That is, if the same freedoms that CA aims to generate can be better achieved under a richly conceived RA— unhindered by the demands of a deep commitment to freedom as such—this seems a promising option. In as far as HD holds freedom and agency as intrinsically valuable, it must remain committed to freedom and agency as means and ends—and this can be prohibitive. Alternatively, because resourcists attach solely instrumental value to freedom and agency and thus need not satisfy the demands of a direct or constructive commitment to freedom at the project level, they can pursue the very same freedoms, participatory arrangements, and empowering mechanisms that HD seeks in potentially more effective ways. The major drawback on the RA end is of course that, even if the approach fosters freedom effectively for a large portion of a given population, it remains incapable of accounting for personal heterogeneities and thus risks leaving some individuals out of the development process. Bearing all this in mind, we must ask whether the overall results and process would be improved if it were possible to implement participatory mechanisms—to embrace genuine freedom and agency—at all levels of the HDR and HDI. While the spirit and theoretical bite of HD would certainly be enriched, it is quite possible that expansive devolution at the procedural level would undermine the effectiveness of the enterprise. More directly, it is possible that improvements in agency at the preliminary stages of the HD Human Development 87

process might jeopardize the potential improvements in agency in the more substantive, project-level dimensions.192 This observation demands one of two responses, neither of which are all that helpful: either the HD needs to loosen its grip on agency and freedom as basic components of the paradigm, or HD needs to propose a modified framework in which the relative values of agency and freedom shift at different levels of development. Rather than assessing these options hypothetically, however, it serves our enterprise to turn to an operationalized approach to development that in many ways embodies the alternatives to HD that we have been considering: the Millennium Villages Project (MVP) directed by Jeffrey Sachs under the auspices of the UNDP and the Earth Institute at Columbia University. In Chapter Four, we evaluate the MVP as we’ve evaluated HD here—assessing its theoretical foundations, practical achievements and limitations, and ultimate viability as a rather different operationalization of Sen’s CA. In so doing, we see what more robust local ownership looks like and what kinds of results it can generate, thus informing our ultimate assessment of the value and practical viability of Sen’s complex commitment to freedom. As for the long-term impact of HD, our assessment yields several conclusions. First, as Fukuda-Parr makes clear in her assessment of HD as an operationalization of Sen’s CA, the HDRs and HDI have significantly aided in Sen’s continued elaborations of his own approach, and for that HD maintains considerable value193—especially because this helps to compensate for the potential damages HD may have caused to the broader efficacy of CA. Second, the overall process of developing and implementing policies based on the HDRs and HDI may help to better define the practical contours of the intrinsic values of freedom, participation, and agency, pointing to necessary modifications in CA if it is to ever be

We can imagine a host of scenarios in which this is the result of too much devolution too early. The risk of elite-interests creeping in at the most local level are just as high—indeed, much higher—as at the top-down planning level, and these could derail otherwise sound approaches to expanding political, social, and economic freedom and agency in the long-run. 193 See Fukuda-Parr (2003).

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effectively operationalized. Third and finally, HD demonstrates the practical limitations of theoretically rich development paradigms. While the firm commitment to CA-style premises and promises may undermine its theoretical and practical integrity, HD has changed the direction of development discourse profoundly. And in that way, Haq was exactly right: the value of HD is in its courage, and in its capacity to inspire other paradigms to pursue more courageous ends themselves.

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“It is the bravery, fortitude, realism, and sense of responsibility of the impoverished and disempowered, for themselves and especially for their children, that give us hope, and spur us on to end extreme poverty in our time.” – Jeffrey Sachs, The End of Poverty194 “They need to own this process. If the process is imposed on them, it doesn’t work. It doesn’t work at all. This is their process. They drive this. They tell us. We work with them. So we’ve been here. We’ve been talking with them, working with them to identify their needs and their priorities and now we start.” – Erin Trowbridge, U.N. Millennium Project: Kororo, Ethiopia 195 “The Millennium Villages project offers a bold, innovative model for helping rural African communities lift themselves out of extreme poverty…By applying this scalable model to give them a hand up, not a hand out, people of this generation can get on the ladder of development and start climbing on their own.” – The Earth Institute at Columbia University196

Our foregoing assessment of the Human Development approach points to the
practical difficulties of operationalizing a development paradigm as theoretically robust as Sen’s CA. In this final chapter, we consider an alternative approach to development with much simpler theoretical foundations: the Millennium Villages Project (MVP). Launched in August 2004, MVP is the most recent in a series of initiatives aimed at facilitating the achievement of the UN Millennium Development Goals worldwide by 2015. Though housed under the same institutional umbrella as the HDR an HDI, MVP takes a markedly different approach to development, making the comparison of the two especially illuminating. At its most basic level, MVP appears a rich elaboration of Rawlsian RA; it focuses on primary goods and various forms of capital as the mechanisms by which the poorest of the poor can raise themselves out of poverty. However, this very notion of empowering the poor to improve their own situations implies a strong commitment to agency and freedom, lending MVP a capabilities-based essence in practice.

Sachs, Jeffrey (2005). The End of Poverty; Economic Possibilities for Our Time. New York: Penguin, 227. Trowbridge, Erin in Amanpour, Christiane (4 Jul. 2005). “Case study: Turning a village around.” CNN World News. Accessed on 1 Mar. 2008 at: 196 “Millennium Villages”. The Earth Institute at Columbia University website. Accessed on 1 Mar. 2008 at:
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In evaluating the strengths and limitations of MVP, our first task is thus to properly classify the model. If its ends reflect resourcist thinking but its broader strategy reflects a leaning toward capabilities, is this a problematic disconnect or an artful amalgamation of paradigms? Extending this line, we assess the achievements of MVP with regard to agency and capability-expansion at the project’s various levels. If the depth of agency and capabilityexpansion is the same as, or perhaps even greater than, projects avowedly committed to CA, what does this tell us about the importance of development theory at the project level? Would MVP be improved if recast in an explicitly capabilities-based framework, or is the emphasis on freedom’s intrinsic value in CA actually counterproductive to achieving the main objectives of development? Ultimately, we balance our assessment of MVP against that of HD and, in turn, with our broader evaluation of CA as a superior development paradigm. WHAT SORT OF “NEW APPROACH TO FIGHTING POVERTY”197? To properly assess the nature of MVP, we must first consider its theoretical and institutional foundations. Though the first Millennium Village (MV), located in Sauri, Kenya, was launched in August 2004, the foundations of the project can be traced back to early 2000, when the UN Millennium Assembly adopted We the Peoples: The Role of the United Nations in the 21st Century. In this seminal document, former UN Secretary General (UNSG) Kofi Annan set out the UN’s priorities for the new millennium, the first being “to free our fellow men and women from the abject and dehumanizing poverty in which more than one billion of them are currently confined.”198 It was in this spirit that the UN issued its Millennium Declaration in September of that same year, articulating and adopting the eight Millennium Development Goals (MDGs): 1—Eradicate extreme poverty and hunger; 2—
The Millennium Project website bills the Millennium Villages (MVs) in this way, suggesting a departure from previous paradigms and, more importantly, from “integrated rural development programs of the 1970s and 1980s or traditional “model villages”” seen in the past. 198 Annan, Kofi (Mar. 2000). “We the Peoples; The Role of the United Nations in the 21st Century.” Report of the Secretary General of the United Nations to the Millennium Assembly. New York: United Nations, 77.

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Achieve universal primary education; 3—Promote gender equality and empower women; 4—Reduce child mortality; 5—Improve maternal health; 6—Combat HIV/AIDS, malaria and other disease; 7—Ensure environmental sustainability; and 8—Develop a global partnership for development.199 As Jeffrey Sachs observes, the MDGs “wisely recognize that extreme poverty has many dimensions, not only low income, but also vulnerability to disease, exclusions from education, chronic hunger and undernutrition, lack of access to basic amenities such as clean water and sanitation, and environmental degradation such as deforestation and land erosion that threatens lives and livelihoods.”200 Not surprisingly, a multi-dimensional approach to poverty eradication is a defining attribute of the MVP as it has evolved under Sachs’ leadership. The basic premise of MVP is that extreme poverty can be overcome with practical and affordable solutions that simply haven’t been available to the poor in the past. As the UN Millennium Project (UNMP) website states: “The Millennium Villages are based on a single powerful idea: impoverished villages can transform themselves and meet the Millennium Development Goals if they are empowered with proven, powerful, practical technologies.”201 Recognizing the multifaceted nature of poverty in the same way that the MDGs do, MVP identifies five common attributes of the poorest countries in sub-Saharan Africa, its primary region of focus: crippling disease, drought-prone climates, landscapes unsuitable for irrigation, isolation due to mountainous and land-locked terrain, and prohibitively poor infrastructure.202 Given this, the project operates on the premise that “[b]y investing in health, food production, education, access to clean water, and essential

“UN Millennium Development Goals.” United Nations website. Accessed on 1 March 2008 at: 200 Sachs (2005), 213. 201 United Nations Millennium Project website. Accessed on 1 March 2008 at: 202 “Millennium Villages: A New Approach to Fighting Poverty; The Situation.” United Nations Millennium Project website. Accessed on 1 March 2008 at:

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infrastructure, these community-led interventions will enable impoverished villages to escape extreme poverty….”203 This statement reveals a great deal about the nature of MVP. In one sense, the approach is inherently resourcist in its focus on the five key areas of investment—health, agriculture, education, clean water & sanitation, and infrastructure— and its corollary premise that, given the right package of resources, the global poor can raise themselves out of poverty. While these key areas may indeed seem like capabilities rather than resources, they are actually broad categories of investment rather than objectives in themselves. For example, health as an area of investment does not equate to the freedom “to lead a long and healthy life,” but rather to the range of resources that fall under the category of health, such as medical services and supplies, immunizations, and the like. However, the MVP seems at least in part capabilities-based in another important sense, as it relies heavily on CA-style empowerment and agency to ensure that its solutions are well-adjusted and sustainable. Given this, we might be inclined to characterize MVP as a neat fusion of RA and CA thinking. But such a characterization, however compelling on its face, proves a bit too quick. Simply because there are aspects of the two approaches present doesn’t mean that their standing within MVP is equal—and this relative weighting is critical to our assessment. To properly characterize MVP, we need to consider the depth and purpose of these constitutive facets, as it may well be the case that one functions only instrumentally toward the spirit and purpose of the other. Because the principles and objectives at the heart of MVP evolved out of Sachs’ own vision for eradicating poverty, a look at this vision illuminates the relative importance of resources and capabilities in MVP. In his various roles as a development economist—UNSG Special Advisor on the MDGs since 2000, director of UNMP from 2002-2006, and director


United Nations Millennium Project website. Accessed on 1 March 2008 at:

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of the Earth Institute (EI) at Columbia University—Sachs developed an inspired yet pragmatic strategy for meeting the MDGs. As Sachs explains in The End of Poverty, “[t]he strategy focuses on key investments—in people and in infrastructure—that can give impoverished communities around the world, both rural and urban, the tools for sustainable development.”204 The root cause of persistent poverty is not, Sachs argues, laziness on behalf of the poor or corruption within their governments, but the lack of critical capital needed to meet life’s basic needs—“to enable the poorest of the poor to get their foot on the ladder of development.”205 In keeping with his multidimensional conception of poverty, Sachs identifies six kinds of capital that the extreme poor lack: human, business, infrastructure, natural, public institutional, and knowledge.206 As with the areas of investment discussed above, these forms of capital consist of relevant resources, not freedoms. Providing the poor with these critical forms of capital enables them, as Sachs puts it, to gain a foothold on the ladder of development—and thus to break the poverty trap207 in which they struggle. That is, at least, the thrust of Sachs’ position and the basis of the vision behind the MVP. At the most basic level, MVP thus reflects a primary commitment to RA thinking and a secondary commitment to CA concerns of empowerment and agency as instrumentally valuable in pursuing its resourcist ends. The project’s goal is the eradication of extreme poverty, measured by the universal achievement of the MDGs, and its method relies on

Sachs (2005), 227. Sachs (2005), 244. 206 Sachs (2005), 244-5. Sachs defines these six major forms of capital as follows: human—health, nutrition, and skills needed for each person to be economically productive; business—the machinery, facilities, motorized transport used in agriculture, industry, and service; infrastructure—roads, power, water and sanitation, airports and seaports, and telecommunications systems, that are critical investments in business productivity; natural—arable land, healthy soils, biodiversity, and well-functioning ecosystems that provide the environmental services needed by human society; public institutional—the commercial law, judicial systems, government services and policing that underpin the peaceful and prosperous division of labor; and knowledge—the scientific and technological know-how that raises productivity in business output and the promotion of physical and natural capital. 207 The concept of the poverty trap is central to Sachs’ global thesis in The End of Poverty, if only tangentially related to the central focus of our assessment. As Sachs explains, “The poor start with a very low level of capital per person, and then find themselves trapped in poverty because the ratio of capital per person actually falls from generation to generation.” The solution to the problem is, Sachs argues, contingent on foreign overseas development aid (ODA), which “helps to jump-start the process of capital accumulation, economic growth, and rising household incomes,” ultimately yielding self-sustaining growth for the poor. Because we are concerned with the nature and spirit of the MVP approach framed by Sachs rather than its technical validity (in an economic sense), we will assume for our purposes that the economic models and analysis Sachs offers are sound. For an elaboration of the poverty trap concept, see Sachs (2005), esp. 245-250.
204 205

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expanding capital through certain critical investments. More to the point, the approach is unabashedly economic; it views primary goods and capital investments—not empowerment and freedoms—as the directly valuable components of development, and aims for sustained economic growth, not sustained capability expansion. Nevertheless, what the approach lacks in explicit theoretical commitment to capabilities and freedom, it makes up for—at least in part—in its commitment to local ownership and community engagement as instrumental necessities in the process, most notably as mechanisms for ensuring the sustainability of the villages themselves. The description of MVP on the Earth Institute’s website articulates this commitment to ownership and engagement particularly well: “The Millennium Villages project offers a bold, innovative model for helping rural African communities lift themselves out of extreme poverty…By applying this scalable model to give them a hand up, not a hand out, people of this generation can get on the ladder of development and start climbing on their own.”208 Though the component of enabling the poor to help themselves makes the approach a particularly rich resourcist extension, the fact remains that MVP recognizes no direct value in empowerment—signaling a clear departure from the core commitments of Sen’s CA. Sachs suggests this resourcist focus in characterizing the ‘tools’ integral to MVP as “the basic necessities not only for a life of dignity and health, but also for economic productivity”209 MVP not only facilitates a life of dignity and health, but also—and more importantly—economic productivity. And as much as economic productivity may very well empower individuals to achieve more freedoms than they enjoy in poverty, MVP operates in terms of the economic and human investments it consists of—not on the freedoms individuals enjoy to use these investments to lead lives they have reason to value. If all individuals are given access to the
“Millennium Villages”. The Earth Institute at Columbia University website. Accessed on 1 Mar. 2008 at: Emphasis added. 209 Sachs (2005), 226.

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basket of resources (commodities, basic training, etc.) without the range of freedoms and agency that CA insists must accompany such primary goods, there is no theory-practice disconnect for MVP. The project has, for all intents and purposes, fulfilled its side of the bargain, and the realization of functionings depends on the local agency that, outside of its instrumental capacity, MVP makes no promise to facilitate for the sake of freedom itself. AGENCY AND CAPABILITY-EXPANSION IN MVP Seeing that MVP is best classified as a rich resourcist rather than capabilities-based approach to development, we turn our assessment to the forms of empowerment and achievement of freedoms within the scope of the project. Our main inquiry here is whether the depth of agency and reach of capability-expansion is the same as in projects that are avowedly committed to CA, and, if so, what this suggests about the importance of freedom and agency at the various stages of development. To that end, we consider the project in both process and results, looking first at the role of the poor in the various stages of MVP and, second, at the degree to which the project’s core investments actually expand the range and achievement of capabilities. AGENCY—INSTRUMENTAL YET DEEP Local ownership and agency are of critical instrumental importance to the success of MVP as a whole. In adapting the MVP framework to village-specific needs and crafting implementation strategies that they themselves consider effective, villagers become active agents in the MVP process and help ensure that interventions are effective and sustainable. In the initial planning phase, “participatory community decision-making” generates “a package of village-specific interventions that are deemed most appropriate and cost effective,

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as well as…a community action plan for implementing and managing these interventions.”210 The thought behind this consultative approach seems to be that the poor know better than Western development economists how to design and implement remedies to the various dimensions of poverty as they uniquely experience them. Leaving aside for the moment the validity of this thought,211 we must consider how this seemingly deep agency aspect of MVP actually looks on the ground. For that, we turn to Sachs’ narrative explanation of the process as it played out in the pilot project for MVP in Sauri, Kenya. At the behest of Kofi Annan, Sachs and a team of his UNMP and EI colleagues traveled to the Sauri sub-region in July 2004 to “work with villagers to identify ways to help such communities to achieve the worldwide Millennium Development Goals of reducing extreme poverty, hunger, disease, and lack of access to safe drinking water.”212 In listening to the poor share their experiences and discussing with them how the challenges of extreme poverty might be remedied, Sachs and his colleagues expanded their understanding of these challenges and, in turn, their capacity to construct a practical and well-adjusted framework for MVP. More than 200 locals attended the community-wide meeting to learn about the MDGs and aspirations of MVP, and, more importantly, to make their voices heard. “Hungry, thin, and ill, they stayed for three and a half hours, speaking with dignity, eloquence, and clarity about their predicament. They are impoverished,” Sachs notes, “but they are resourceful. Though struggling to survive at present, they are not dispirited but determined to improve their situation. They know well how they could get back to higher ground.”213 Unfortunately, being resourceful and knowing how to get back to higher ground

United Nations Millennium Project (Nov. 2006). “Q/A on the Millennium Villages”. Accessed on 1 Mar. 2008 at: 211 The thought that people know how best to solve the problems endemic to their village-specific situations, though intuitively compelling, is not as obviously true as it may seem. However, we discuss the value and implications of various levels of devolution in our evaluative Conclusion, and thus need not explore this issue further here. 212 Sachs (2005), 228. 213 Sachs (2005), 228-9.

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in a region so devoid of basic resources leaves these villagers trapped in their predicament. It is thus the role of MVP to fill that void. What sort of message did Sachs and his team take away from the villagers in Sauri, and what was its corresponding impact on the evolution of MVP? In the course of the meeting, community members identified a host of challenges—ranging from nutrientdepleted soils to lack of adequate education opportunities—that would need to be overcome for the village to be ‘saved’. As Sachs explains, these challenges inform “the Big Five development interventions”—agricultural goods; investments in basic health; investments in education; power, transport, and communication services; and safe drinking water and sanitation—“that would spell the difference between hunger, disease, and death and health and economic development” for the people of Sauri.214 Not surprisingly, these Big Five interventions correspond directly to the interventions deemed critical by MVP to the salvation of a village: food security; health; water and sanitation; education; and infrastructure. To properly evaluate the depth of local agency in the planning process, we must consider the relative influence of the voices of the poor and the big ideas of Sachs and his colleagues on the design and implementation of MVP. We can interpret the relationship between the challenges and key interventions identified by the community members in Sauri and those articulated within the official MVP framework in one of two ways. It might be the case that the two sets of interventions are the same simply because they are in fact the most important interventions for eradicating poverty—and for completing the project’s main task of achieving the worldwide MDGs. While this reading is not entirely unreasonable, it is rather implausible in the case at hand. Even if the poor and the elite Western development economists would have proposed the


Sachs (2005), 232-4.

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same set of interventions independent of one other, the fact remains that MVP representatives arrived in Sauri with directives and objectives driving their assessment, and this invariably colored their approach to engaging the poor—which in turn colored what the villagers said and what the MVP representatives heard. At the same time, the commitment of MVP to giving the global poor a voice is quite extensive, and thus some degree of local influence over global strategy cannot be denied. As such, a more accurate reading recognizes that the bottom-up and top-down forces influenced one another, but in importantly different ways. Whereas the voices of the poor inform the project’s extension from and adaptation of its framework to village-specific interventions, the Western elite set the terms by which the poor must carry out this extension and define the goals toward which MVP moves. In the context of our larger discussion and the core position elaborated thus far— that Sen’s CA provides a more compelling approach to development than a resourcist paradigm, largely because of the direct, instrumental, and constructive value it places on freedom—this Western control over the main tenets that drive MVP seems problematic. To be sure, this is one of the major flaws we identify with the HDR and HDI: the subjects of the evaluation play at best a tangential role in defining the very terms on which they are evaluated. The one problem with leveraging this same criticism against MVP, however, is that HD claims to be capability-based while MVP does nothing of the sort. The commitment to agency via community-based programming and local capacity development is, as has been made clear, instrumental, and thus MVP is free to decide when that agency is best suited to meeting the explicit ends of the project. Constructing an entire development model around Western conceptions of well-being and assessments of poverty may seem paternalistic, but does it really present a problem for MVP? In making good on its theoretical foundations at the project-level, MVP demonstrates no disconnect; it is based on a rich The Millennium Villages Project 99

resourcist conception and embodies this conception in every way, making good on its various premises and promises at each phase. In specific regard to agency, MVP actually achieves a great deal more than many resourcist approaches might be reasonably expected to, committing itself in principle to the instrumental importance of agency and fully embracing this notion in practice. And in as far as this theory-practice bridge is a major crux of any viable development paradigm, MVP is clearly superior to capabilities-based HD in this respect. The final point to explore here is whether MVP may, regardless of this strong theory-practice connection, remain inferior to capabilities-based approaches with regard to agency. Just because MVP sets no explicit standard for facilitating agency, and can thus trumpet any agency it achieves as a success, it may still fall short of the agency that we hold to be so critical to development. To that end, the real question is whether the balance between the intrinsic and instrumental value of agency remains constant for all individuals at all times, or if it shifts depending on a person’s level of well-being. As discussed in Chapter Two, the direct value of freedom matters more to a person once they have secure and stable access to life’s basic necessities; in this way, the value of freedom—and indeed the infinite capabilities of which it is comprised—is best understood as lexically ordered in two levels. At the first level, sufficiency or survival is the primary concern; using the language of CA, survival here consists in the capabilities to be well-nourished, to lead a long and healthy life, and to be free from bodily harm.215 Here, freedom matters primarily because it facilitates the secure and consistent access to these capabilities of survival. If a single mother living in rural Uganda struggles each day simply to keep her children and herself from starving to death, freedom’s intrinsic value is of little importance to her—it matters only in as far as it enables her to
Any attempt to articulate the specific capabilities in which survival on its most basic conception consists is obviously controversial. However, the intent here is not to present a comprehensive list but rather to suggest that the only capabilities that matter in this first stage are those that are absolutely critical to one’s survival.

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sustain life. And as we have seen quite clearly in our assessment of MVP so far, the only side of the project in which top-down agency truly outweighs agency of stakeholders is in the initial articulation of the basic dimensions of survival within which the project must operate. Beyond this basic sufficiency level, the stakes change considerably. Expansion of higher-order capabilities is the primary focus at this second level in our lexical ordering, and with this comes a much more balanced valuation between freedom’s instrumental and direct aspects. The expansion consists as much in ensuring that people have access to the basic capabilities with which they may pursue more complex aspects of lifestyles worth valuing, such as the capabilities to be cultured, to participate in the life of the community, and to be satisfied with one’s work. Agency is thus absolutely critical at this stage, as it is the right and responsibility of individuals to determine for themselves what type of lifestyle they wish to lead. Whereas agency is not necessarily of critical importance for individuals living below the basic sufficiency level—and thus a paternalistic articulation of the components of survival that are objectively valuable on any reasonable interpretation is not particularly problematic—agency is as important for individuals living above this level as the various capabilities they have access to. Bearing in mind that MVP is geared toward saving the poorest of the poor from destitution—bringing them, as it were, above the level of basic subsistence—it remains immune to charges of inadequate agency. Indeed, the very absence of a direct commitment to agency and freedom seems to enable MVP to promote these aspects more effectively than capabilities-based approaches, so concerned with ensuring the achievement of capabilities across all dimensions, actually do. CAPABILITY EXPANSION Seeing no major flaws in the agency aspect of the MVP, we turn to the capacity of the model and its human and capital investments to expand the range of capabilities that The Millennium Villages Project 101

stakeholders enjoy. Because MVP is resourcist by design, its rhetoric never identifies the choices being expanded within its framework as capabilities. Nevertheless, just as Pogge convincingly reconceptualizes various capabilities as ‘resources’, we can reconceptualize the resourcist investments of MVP as capabilities. We thus consider each of the investments comprising the MVP package in turn, imagining the potential capabilities linked with each and evaluating their relative importance. As our evaluation demonstrates, the main point of departure between MVP and a similarly structured capability-based approach is that the failure to realize capabilities within MVP is an unfortunate but ultimately inconsequential outcome, whereas a similar shortfall within CA constitutes major failure and demands rectification. In this way, the absence of an explicit commitment to capability expansion might be seen as the Achilles’ heel of MVP; it severely undermines the project’s capacity to recover from missteps when its very tightly conceived intervention set fails to achieve the results it expects. Before considering this fallout, however, we evaluate capability expansion within each of the key MVP investment sectors to determine how close MVP comes to achieving the aims of CA in the best-case scenario. The first sector of investment, agriculture, demonstrates the range of potential synergies that accompany each set of interventions. The major agricultural goods are fertilizers, improved fallows, irrigation systems, and improved seedlings,216 all of which function to increase crop yields and replenish soil quality for sustainable land-use. At the most basic level, the objective of these agricultural investments is food security, and the corresponding capability to be well nourished. Beyond this, however, synergies abound. Providing that crop yields are—as Sachs projects—high enough to feed the villagers sufficiently while also generating a surplus, grain can be stored and sold for profit; in this, we


Sachs (2005), 233.

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might identify the capabilities to participate in the market economy and, in turn, to trade for a diverse basket of goods. As Sachs explains, the improvements in agricultural efficiency “would be of particular advantage for the women, who do the lion’s share of African farm and household work.”217 Agricultural interventions thus expand various capabilities available to women, such as the capability to be free from undue strain on the job and, as a result of reduced labor burdens, to partake in the life of the community more fully than before. As with investments in agriculture, investments in health lend themselves to a range of capabilities. The major investments in basic health are a medical clinic (complete with a small but qualified staff), free antimalarial bed nets and other preventative mechanisms, treatments for opportunistic infections, and a host of essential health services not generally available to the global poor.218 In addition to the obvious capability to live long and healthy lives, individuals enjoying improved health will have the choice of such diverse capabilities as those to participate in the workforce, to be educated, to appear in public without shame, and to pursue lives of dignity that they have reason to value. Clearly, capabilities relating to basic health are some of the most essential that individuals may enjoy; a person’s health has obvious residual effects on his capacity to be educated, to earn an income, to raise a family, and to participate in the life of the community. Thus, even if the other interventions succeed, failings on the side of basic health can significantly undermine the value of these other achievements. Whereas investments in agriculture/food security and health respond directly to basic needs, investments in infrastructure (power, transport, communication services) and in safe drinking water & sanitation represent more instrumental supplements to these basic interventions. Infrastructural interventions promote efficiency and eliminate unnecessary
217 218

Sachs (2005), 233. Ibid.

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costs across industries, diminishing the physical toll of labor and freeing individuals up to spend their time in other similarly productive ways. Basic capabilities like being able to study after sunset, which students of affluent countries take for granted and which greatly enhance the capability to be knowledgeable, can be easily facilitated with simple developments in electrical power. Improved transport facilitates the more efficient transfer of goods, participation in markets, and access to emergency health care. Similarly, expanded communication services help eliminate what Sachs calls the ‘digital divide’ between rich and poor countries, thus enabling the poor to have access to market information and to be active participants in the global community. In a similar fashion, investments in clean water and sanitation directly support the improvement of health and the empowerment of women and children. As Sachs notes, conveniently placed boreholes save women and children “countless ours of toil each day fetching water,”219thus freeing them from unnecessary physical strain and enabling them to use their time in more productive and worthwhile ways. Of the core MVP investment areas, education stands apart from the rest in two critical aspects. First, within the context of absolute poverty, educational investments may be more difficult to justify when resources are limited and other, more basic needs—food security, health, safe drinking water, and the like—remain unmet. To be sure, the MVP model attempts to offset this divide between education and more critical primary goods by focusing on synergies; for instance, providing meals for school children is considered an educational intervention, as being well-fed “could improve the health of schoolchildren, the quality of education, and the attendance at school.”220 This point highlights the second and more important distinguishing feature of educational investments: the potential range of capabilities fostered by these investments is significantly greater than in other dimensions.
219 220

Sachs (2005), 234. Sachs (2005), 233.

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MVP explicitly recognizes the link between education and empowerment, a critical aspect of CA and a major pathway to higher-order capabilities. As Sachs recalls from his time in Sauri, “the village is ready and eager to be empowered by increased information and technical knowledge.”221 By facilitating quality primary education and implementing vocational training programs for adults, MVP not only ensures long-term sustainability and local ownership, but also opens the way for individuals to choose among myriad capabilities. Even more important, the sustained success of more basic interventions requires technical and informational capacity-building, as the UNMP website is quick to recognize: “Technical capacity-building…provides villagers with the skills they need to sustain the interventions in the long-term. Training courses for health and nutrition, agricultural and environment, energy and transport services, water resources and sanitation, and business and communications provide villagers with the skills they need in each area of the interventions.”222 Knowledge truly is power for the poor. It enables them to think beyond life’s basic necessities to more complex matters—such as systems of governance, equity and rights—that they have every reason to value but may not have thought critically about in the past for lack of adequate knowledge. While basic goods are indeed important, they provide the foundations for the higher-order capabilities that only become available to individuals once they enjoy the capabilities to be knowledgeable and to acquire valuable skills. As the foregoing assessment of capability expansion through the core investments of MVP makes clear, the absence of an explicit commitment to capabilities as such hardly precludes MVP from making a rich range of capabilities available to its beneficiaries in practice. For all intents and purposes, the approach achieves the same objectives articulated by CA under a model that is arguably more functional and unmarred by the theory-practice
Sachs (2005), 233. United Nations Millennium Project. “Millennium Villages: A New Approach to Fighting Poverty; Local Ownership”. Accessed on 1 March 2008 at:
221 222

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disconnect seen in HD. Coupled with the integral agency aspect of the approach, this expansion of capabilities bodes quite well for the broader efficacy of MVP as a development paradigm. Indeed, the fact that MVP can potentially achieve the same depth of agency and expansive range of capabilities as a successfully operationalized version of Sen’s CA forces us to reconsider our broader assessment of the two competing approaches. If we believe that what truly matters in development are the results, does it really matter how these results are achieved? On the most favorable construal of a MVP, our assessment suggests a negative answer to this question. If, as proponents of CA, our objectives are empowerment and capability expansion, and MVP succeeds in facilitating these, we shouldn’t care about the spirit behind the enterprise. However, our position necessarily changes when MVP falls short of its articulated goals, as such a shortfall likely translates to a failure to deliver on one or both of our desired objectives. And when this happens, the absence of an explicit commitment to capability expansion in MVP seriously undermines its potential for salvaging the capabilities available to the villagers themselves—and, in turn, the efficacy of MVP at large. WHAT VALUE MVP? Our assessment here reveals only one major shortfall in MVP when measured against our conception of an optimal development approach: it is not committed by design to promoting freedoms and expanding capabilities directly. As the foregoing discussion suggests, MVP is fully capable of empowering stakeholders and expanding capabilities by way of its core investments when all goes well. However, the case is quite different when the model goes awry—that is, when MVP delivers its package of primary goods but its corresponding multidimensional results fall short of target, critical capabilities may well fall by the wayside. Even worse, the structure of the approach seems to provide no safety net for The Millennium Villages Project 106

the poor when such shortfalls transpire; having delivered the goods promised in the model and properly devolved responsibilities of planning and implementation to various national, regional, and local groups, MVP has technically fulfilled its promise. In this way, the great potential in MVP for success beyond its explicit goals also poses great potential for failure beyond the degree of fallout that could ever reasonably be expected from a capabilitiesbased development approach. This seems to leave us at an impasse. In Chapter Three, we saw the difficulty of a rich operationalization of Sen’s CA to realize its objectives without undermining its theoretical foundations. Here, we have seen the capacity of RA to expand capabilities and empower individuals in the development process. While this is laudable when the approach succeeds, the fallout for individual empowerment and freedoms when the approach fails is potentially devastating to the CA enterprise. To that end, CA is favorable because it operates against more demanding standards. And even if, as the case of HD suggests, these demanding standards pose practical barriers to implementing the approach, it may still be favorable to maintain standards that require persistent pursuit of capabilities, however defined, until they are actually achieved. What, then, are we to do? What does Sen’s CA remain good for? How might it be used?

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“It is a characteristic of freedom that it has diverse aspects that relate to a variety of activities and institutions. It cannot yield a view of development that translates readily into some simple “formula”…The organizing principle that places all the different bits and pieces into an integrated whole is the overarching concern with the process of enhancing individual freedoms and the social commitment to help to bring that about. That unity is important, but at the same time we cannot lose sight of the fact that freedom is an inherently diverse concept, which involves…considerations of processes as well as substantive opportunities. This diversity is not, however, a matter of regret…Development is indeed a momentous engagement with freedom’s possibilities.” – Amartya Sen, Development As Freedom 223

We began our assessment with one central objective: to assess the complex role of
freedom in Sen’s Capability Approach (CA) and thereby determine the prospects and pitfalls of the approach as a development paradigm. In Chapter One, we assessed the major points of tension between CA and RA, and realized the evaluative superiority of Sen’s capabilitybased metric to Rawls’ resource-based one. In Chapter Two, we explored the depth of Sen’s commitment to freedom and agency as both the ends and means of development, and determined that this commitment is at once the most compelling and potentially compromising feature of the approach. To assess the theory-practice disconnect generated in CA, we turned in Chapter Three to the UNDP Human Development paradigm; here, we saw the challenge of realizing in practice the robust role of freedom Sen espouses in theory, and were forced to reconsider our position that CA is in fact superior to RA in development. In Chapter Four, we considered the UN Millennium Villages Project as an alternative development model, and determined it to be in many ways a more viable approach for fostering the freedoms that Sen advances as constitutive of development; however, our assessment of MVP also revealed that the approach provides no guarantee of fostering individual freedoms because its commitment to freedom is purely instrumental, and thus its objectives may well be achieved without individual freedoms being enhanced. As we note at the end of Chapter Four, all of this seems to leave us at an impasse. Yet, in bringing together

Sen, Amartya (1999). Development As Freedom. New York: Oxford University Press, 297-8.

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the main threads of our foregoing assessment, we can draw clear conclusions regarding the ultimate value of Sen’s CA and, in so doing, elucidate the proper role of freedom in development. The first conclusion to be drawn from our assessment is that the evaluative aspect of Sen’s CA is of tremendous importance in development. In its sensitivity to personal heterogeneities and the various social, political, and economic factors that impact individual well-being, Sen’s capability-based metric perceives aspects of poverty and underdevelopment that traditional resourcist metrics simply do not. Even if we grant that RA can account in part for most of the well-being determinants that Sen identifies (environmental diversities, variations in social climate, differences in relational perspectives, and intrafamily distribution), our assessment demonstrates that the sensitivity of CA to these factors is far superior to that of RA. In as far as severe deficits in freedom persist even under conditions of steady economic development, Sen’s metric stands to play a critical role in supplementing other “informationally short” paradigms. As Robeyns concludes in her practical assessment of CA, “its relative usefulness often depends on the kind of question being addressed. Moreover, capability applications should in many cases not be seen as supplanting other approaches, but instead as providing complementary insights to the more established approaches.”224 To see this, we need look no further than MVP. Because MVP utilizes freedom instrumentally to ensure the effectiveness and sustainability of its interventions but does not regard freedom as a directly valuable component of development, its capacity to use freedoms depends on how well it understands and thereby facilitates them. As such, supplementing the approach with a capability-based assessment would greatly enhance this capacity and, in turn, the overall efficacy of the paradigm.


Robeyns, Ingrid (2006). The Capability Approach in Practice. The Journal of Political Philosophy, 14:3, 372.

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The capacity of Sen’s metric to expand and enhance well-being assessments positions it to inform paradigms of all kinds, and to promote a greater awareness of the complex freedoms and opportunities so critical to development. In turn, this could lead to a rise of new development models that value freedom more directly and foundationally in the vein of Sen’s CA. However, the opening of development discourse to capability-based well-being assessment at the strategic level may require certain compromises, as Sen openly recognizes. Discussing the need to promote CA pragmatically, Sen proposes three alternatives for “giving practical shape to the foundational concern” of judging individual advantage based on freedom: the direct approach, the supplementary approach, and the indirect approach. The direct approach involves evaluating individual advantage in development purely based on capability considerations; the supplementary approach involves supplementing traditional incomebased assessments with capability considerations in an informal way, as in our hypothetical example of the MVP above; and the indirect involves adjusting income-based assessments to account for various capability determinants.225 In line with Robeyns’ position, Sen asserts that “[e]ach of these approaches has contingent merit that may vary depending on the nature of the exercise, the availability of information, and the urgency of the decisions that have to be taken.”226 In this way, Sen demonstrates the versatility of his metric and the broad scale of its utility, thus warding off criticisms from an all-or-nothing standpoint that CA fails if it cannot be realized to its fullest extent. “Since the capability perspective is sometimes interpreted in terribly exacting terms,” he writes, “…it is important to emphasize the catholicity that the approach has. The foundational affirmation of the importance of capabilities can go with various strategies of actual evaluation involving practical compromises. The pragmatic nature of practical reason
Sen (1999), 81-83. To better understand the indirect approach, consider the example Sen offers: “family income levels may be adjusted downward by illiteracy and upward by high levels of education, and so on, to make them equivalent in terms of capability achievement.” 226 Sen (1999), 84-5.

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demands this.”227 In as far as the approach can utilize strategies that vary in their ambition vis-à-vis capabilities considerations and also account for the “underlying motivations”228 of competing approaches, it can augment the evaluative aspects of alternative paradigms while remaining foundationally committed to capabilities. Recognizing this catholicity of his CA and a pragmatic willingness to compromise at the operational level, Sen somewhat abates our fears about the problematic theory-practice disconnect explored throughout our assessment. And yet, in doing so, he also forces us to reconsider the significance of his approach in regard to its more substantive feature: the agency aspect. The second and more interesting conclusion to be drawn from our assessment relates to this agency aspect, which embodies Sen’s complex commitment to freedom as directly, instrumentally, and constructively valuable. Given the catholicity of CA, we must bring the major threads of our assessment together in the context of Sen’s pragmatic willingness to compromise. What type of compromise might we reasonably expect Sen to make regarding the agency aspect of CA, such that his foundational commitment to free agency as the end and means of development remains intact but the practical realization of this agency can take place outside the ideal realm of Sen’s richly conceived perspective? Is such a compromise possible, or does the very act of tempering the robust commitment to agency to make it realizable diminish the overall value of CA? On this point, our assessments of the Human Development (HD) paradigm and the Millennium Villages Project (MVP) are particularly telling. Whereas the case of HD demonstrates the serious difficulty of realizing Sen’s CA on its most extensive construal, the case of MVP demonstrates the serious need to maintain a complex commitment to freedom and agency beyond their purely instrumental

Sen (1999), 85. Sen (1999), 86: “In particular, the freedom-based perspective can take note of, inter alia, utilitarianism’s interest in human well-being, libertarianism’s involvement with processes of choice and the freedom to act and Rawlsian theory’s focus on individual liberty and on the resources needed for substantive freedoms.”
227 228

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value to ensure that individual capabilities are actually expanded under a given development paradigm. Because these two models represent opposite ends of the development spectrum in their foundational commitments and ultimate objectives, a reconsideration of their major failings illuminates grounds for compromise that may very well generate a more viable model altogether. The major difficulty identified in our assessment of HD is its bold embrace of Sen’s commitment to freedom and subsequent failure to realize this in practice. The most egregious example of this disconnect occurs at the constructive level, where the valuation of HDI indicators and selection of annual HDR themes results from a heavily top-down, elitedriven process rather than from genuine social choice. While our initial reaction to this disconnect is to call for a revised version of the approach that maintains its robust theoretical commitments but makes a more ardent effort to actually facilitate constructive freedom, we saw in Chapter Two that the deliberative social choice process that Sen’s CA calls for is a theoretical ideal. Even if it were possible to facilitate on-the-ground, this constructive agency stands to undermine freedoms in other, potentially more damaging ways. If the constructive component of a development paradigm is billed as genuinely participatory when it in fact extenuates long-standing power-imbalances or undermines individual autonomy by ‘forcing’ democratic agency,229 the depth of individual freedom actually suffers more than it would if the constructive component was less extensive but honest about its practical depth. As Jay Drydyk argues, it is often the case that “participation merely gives an appearance of local autonomy to a process that more fundamentally is being ‘teleguided’ from afar. Moreover, if local stakeholders have been made to believe that they are responsible for a project, then they can be blamed if this and similar projects fail to


See Chapter Two pp. 62-3, n. 129-131 and accompanying text.

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achieve significant improvements in people’s lives.”230 Sen’s constructive theoretical ideal proves less than ideal in practice, and the potential costs of operationalizing it outweigh its potential benefits to the overall depth of individual freedom. Given the potential pitfalls of a richly conceived social valuation process at the constructive level of development, we must consider the ultimate value of constructive freedom against its potential costs. We saw in Chapter Two that Sen regards freedom as progressively valuable, with the highest quality of human life resulting when functionings are achieved by way of direct, instrumental, and constructive freedoms.231 To that end, local agency in the construction and valuation of capability-sets appears to be of tremendous importance, as it allows individuals to pursue capabilities they have reason to value and to ‘influence decisions about their lives’, which HD recognizes as a core component of development. And yet, when weighed against the staggering potential consequences of such agency in practice, its value seems far less compelling. Whether the extreme difficulty of realizing genuine constructive freedom derails a development paradigm’s overall efforts to expand individual capabilities, or if the realization of such freedom undermines freedom at different levels of the paradigm, it seems a prime aspect of Sen’s CA to compromise on. Indeed, pragmatism demands a modified commitment to constructive freedom as it relates to the more complex commitment to freedom in Sen’s CA if the overall theoretical integrity and practical value of the approach are to be preserved. Whereas HD demonstrates the pitfalls of maintaining too robust a theoretical commitment to freedom in development, MVP demonstrates the pitfalls of failing to value freedom in development beyond its instrumental capacities. To be sure, our assessment revealed MVP to be in many ways more capable than HD of fostering constitutive human
230 231

Drydyk, Jay (July 2005). When is Development More Democratic? Journal of Human Development, 6:2, 263. See Figure 1, “The Progressive Value of Freedom in Sen’s Capability Approach”, Chapter Two pp. 46.

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freedoms, and for that the approach maintains considerable value. Aside from the initial selection of key investment areas by Western elites, the approach relies heavily on CA-style freedom to adapt and implement these investments effectively. However, the absence of any agency commitment to freedom in the paradigm relegates the expansion of capabilities to secondary status, and provides no guarantee that freedoms will in fact be enhanced if the model happens upon another, more efficient means of ensuring effectiveness and sustainability of its core resourcist interventions. Thus, while MVP seems optimal when all goes well, pragmatism demands that a check be put in place to secure human freedom outside of its implementational connection with the utilization of basic resources. What might such a check look like, and what kind of balance between the various levels of freedom might it aim to strike? In Chapter Four, we raised the question of whether the balance between the direct and instrumental value of agency remains constant for all individuals at all times, or if it shifts depending on individual levels of well-being. Based on our assessment in Chapter Two of freedom in Sen’s CA, we concluded that the direct value of agency matters more to a person once they have secure and stable access to life’s basic necessities, and thus that the value of freedom is best understood as lexically ordered in two levels. Under our proposed lexical ordering, free agency only becomes directly valuable after the capabilities required for basic human subsistence have been facilitated. If we extend this notion to MVP, we can imagine a lexical commitment within the paradigm by which the instrumental commitment to freedom is elevated to a more complex commitment once individuals’ basic needs are met. Within the ‘Big Five’ intervention areas232 that MVP identifies, this might mean that freedom and agency remain instrumentally valuable until all individuals have access to the resources comprising investments in agriculture, health, and


See note 214 supra and accompanying text.

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safe drinking water, which are reasonably understood as meeting basic needs; once these needs are met, freedom and agency become directly valuable in the expansion of access to education, infrastructure, and general economic development toward which MVP moves. If this addition of a direct commitment to freedom at the secondary level of MVP seems a bit forced, that’s because it is. Given the model’s resourcist foundations, this addition of a secondary commitment to freedom as directly valuable goes against the underlying ends of the approach. Perhaps more important, the fact remains that the approach could very well miss a critical mass of individuals at its most basic level, since access to resources is not the same as access to capabilities, and thus the provision of resources in the most basic dimensions cannot guarantee that individuals’ basic needs are in fact being met. The incapacity of MVP to guarantee human freedoms even with our added ‘check’ illuminates a critical component of any compromise we make to operationalize Sen’s CA: the foundational consideration of the paradigm must remain capabilities, not resources. Given this, how might we adapt the basic structure of the MVP model in the modified form proposed above to more readily meet Sen’s commitment to freedom? If we replace the resourcist interventions of MVP with capability-based ones—e.g. replacing investments in agriculture/foods security and basic health with interventions to foster the capabilities to be wellnourished and to lead a long and healthy life—the notion of a lexical ordering is much more promising. In removing the extreme challenge of fostering constructive freedom at the foundational level, it allows the development paradigm to take more direct measures to ensure access to these basic capabilities. In as far as agency of the poor can inform and improve the conceptualization of what these basic capabilities require, it remains an important aspect of this initial constructive phase of development—if only instrumentally. More important, such agency becomes directly valuable beyond the basic set of capabilities, Conclusion 115

giving individuals ample capacity to direct and utilize the constructive process for higherorder capabilities, where they are more willing, more able, and more empowered to deliberate over the life choices that they have reason to value. By avoiding the initial challenges of operationalizing Sen’s constructive freedom at the most basic level of development while maintaining his foundational concern with agency as directly and instrumentally valuable, this lexical ordering makes the model more practically realizable, and thus more compelling. How does this lexical shift affect Sen’s complex commitment to freedom? To be fair, the notion of this lexical ordering of basic and higher-order capabilities may seem like a problematic spin on the very processes that we deemed so damaging in HD and, to a lesser degree, in the generation of Nussbaum’s list. Because Sen refuses any specification or valuation of capabilities in constructing his CA and espouses freedom at all levels of development, this lexical ordering appears to be a departure from his theoretical commitments. However, our move here is not problematic in the way that those taken by HD and Nussbaum are, as we limit ourselves exclusively to the specification of objectively basic capabilities while they each extend the specification much further. Many will take issue with this notion of ‘objectively basic capabilities,’ and so we should be clear about what we mean here. As discussed in Chapter Four, the set of objectively basic capabilities consists of those capabilities that are absolutely critical to a person’s survival, namely: the capabilities to be wellnourished, to lead a long and healthy life, and to be free from bodily harm. Does the articulation of these capabilities signify a paternalistic departure from Sen’s commitment to freedom, or a pragmatic move that makes this commitment more practically realizable? To see which is the case, we consider the seminal example of fasting versus famine, which Sen uses to demonstrate the value of choice that individuals derive from having access Conclusion 116

to capabilities even they choose not to take them up. Whereas the man who starves to death for lack of the capability to be well-nourished suffers a clear deprivation of freedom, the man who chooses to fast instead of utilizing his capability to be well-nourished is simply exercising his agency—his freedom is still enhanced even if he opts to use it in a way contrary to what we might expect. To that end, the selection and facilitation of basic capabilities by a Western development paradigm is not a problematic constriction of freedom, but rather a productive enhancement of it. Even if individuals choose not to utilize these basic capabilities, there is no denying their objective and direct value to human survival. Were the development program forcing individuals to actually realize the corresponding functionings to these capabilities, the valuation of freedom and agency at the two levels of our lexical ordering would be problematically paternalistic. This, however, is not the case. And in as far as these basic capabilities provide the necessary foundations for individuals to become active free agents in the valuation and pursuit of higher-order capabilities, this move actually enhances Sen’s overall commitment to freedom rather than running against it. Moreover, by ensuring that basic capabilities remain prior at all times to higher-order ones, our ordering provides a sufficient check against the disparities that may develop through the deliberation over and pursuit of higher-order capabilities. While it thus represents a compromise when compared to the richest conception of Sen’s CA, this modified capabilitybased paradigm remains fully in the spirit of Sen’s foundational belief that freedom is constitutive of development. And, though it by no means eliminates the potential challenges faced in operationalizing Sen’s CA, this ordering makes the process much more viable by circumventing many of the initial practical concerns. What, then, is the ultimate value of Sen’s CA, and what is the proper role of freedom in development? As our assessment makes clear, the most immediate value of Sen’s CA is its Conclusion 117

tremendous evaluative capacity, which stands to enhance the assessments and interventions of traditional development paradigms by shifting their focus to the genuine opportunities that individuals enjoy. Beyond this, Sen’s CA maintains great promise as a basis for development—both as an inspiring vision of development’s possibilities and, given certain practical compromises, as a foundational framework for a new wave of freedom-based development initiatives. While the evolution of such initiatives will necessarily be gradual, our assessment reveals that the prospects of Sen’s approach far surpass its potential pitfalls. This, in turn, reveals a great deal about the complex role of freedom in development. In recognizing the potential synergies between freedom in its direct, instrumental, and constructive aspects, as well as the pragmatic need to balance these aspects against each other at different stages of development, Sen’s Capability Approach truly represents a momentous engagement with freedom’s possibilities. And once we accept these possibilities, once we value freedom as the end and means of development, we join Sen in imposing exacting claims on our attention—claims that cannot be met by looking at something else.

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